Tuesday, August 4, 2015

"Mr. Turner"

To me, one of the most amazing painters of all time is Joseph Mallard William Turner or JMW Turner, the English romanticist painter. Known for his landscapes, seascapes, water colors and print making, artistically he had an amazing life. In his time he was known as "the painter of light" truly more amazing that anything painted by Thomas Kincaid.

Born in 1775 he showed great talent at an early age. He sold his art before he was even a teenager at his fathers wig making and barber shop. Even then it was of a mature style of an artist many years older. He entered the Royal Academy of Art School at 14 and was accepted by the Royal Academy at 15!

The movie "Mr. Turner" recounts the final years of his life, a time when he was thought to be washed up. Yet in fact, he produced possibly his greatest works. The movie is fascinating and I found confusing in that the director's style is amazingly opaque. You learn about his life, his father, the women he had children by and ultimately the woman he ended up with, in one of the most unusual edits I have ever seen in a film. It can be at times daunting to understand what and who and why these people are here. In fact painting takes a back seat as we learn about the man. One thing that was clear was that he was openly mocked about having too many "seascapes." He cared not.

The Fighting Temeraire being towed to be broken up
It is amazing to see events that inspired Turner. The towboat bringing the Fighting HMS Temeraire to be broken apart is especially moving. Coming to rescue Nelson when his flagship HMS Victory was destroyed during the Battle of Trafalgar, the Temeraire was especially meaningful to all Britons in this 1838 painting. The film recreates this scene.

Landscape painting had its Renaissance during Turner's lifetime. There are several scenes showing the competitions with paintings stacked floor to ceiling with a variety of subjects. You see Constable, who is considered by many to be the father of the modern landscape, working still on a painting he has submitted. Turner by the end of his life had elevated the landscape from a lovely scene to a thing of moods and feelings. You can't help but be moved by the swirl of colors and vague objects. However, he was controversial in his day.

Fishermen at Sea
As a younger man he would paint during the winters and travel in the summer. He traveled extensively in England, favoring Wales, but also going to France, Switzerland and Venice often. One of the things he was known for was a sketchbook he carried with him everywhere. He might do nothing for days and suddenly see a subject that would cause him to spring to action. Known originally for his watercolors that he also always carried with him, his oils began to be painted in layers of washes that created a light effect rarely seen by any other artist. The effect is stunning. He once lashed himself to a mast during a very turbulent sea crossing to see the effects of lightning, rain and waves. He would then translate that to his paintings in ways never done before. Compare this to one of his Venice scenes (below).

For me, studying up on him, the transformation of a figurative artist to impressionistic one is astounding. He sets an example of what an artist, of any stripe, should be, pushing the envelope! His first oil was "Fishermen At Sea" (above), a storm tossed vision of what it was like for those making a living fishing. Already we can see in 1793 the future. While other paintings were far more detailed, due no doubt to his architectural training, features became far less distinct and he expressed often the moods of nature. Objects were merely decoration.

I think his time in Venice showed him clearly the effects of lights and darks that he learned to use effectively. The contrast between the Grand Canal in Venice and his dark brooding "Fishermen at Sea" cannot be ignored. It recalls early Van Gogh paintings that dramatically changed when he went to Paris going from dark moody images to light!

Eruption of Vesuvius
Turner never married but did father two daughters. He never had many friends except his father who remained his assistant for 30 years. When his father died in 1829, he suffered from bouts of depression the rest of his life. He died in Chelsea in 1851 living with but never marrying Sarah Danby for 18 years.

Suitable subjects for Turner were the dramatic - catastrophes, shipwrecks, fires, natural events like storms, rain, fog, sunlight and rain. The critic John Ruskin who adored Turner described the artist as one "who most stirringly and truthfully measured the moods of nature."

Rain, Steam & Speed - The Great Western Railway
Strangely despite warnings, he used paints that knowingly would fade. He loved Carmine, a red that was brilliant at the time of painting but would fade in his lifetime. Some of his paintings looked washed out because of this. Using his oils like watercolor putting oil wash after wash created etherial effects unlike anyone of his day. In fact his work is considered by many to have influenced the French Impressionists, particularly Claude Monet who studied his works extensively. 

There can be no doubt that Turner knew how to set a mood. It developed over the years from nearly perfect architectural renderings to an increasingly impressionistic style that would soon become, in France, Impressionism. Mocked in life, Turner is now seen as a kind of liberator in art. The camera had been developed and there is a scene in the movie that is amusing when he has his portrait taken, yet he foresaw, as many didn't, that paintings could express a mood no camera could.

His dying words were "Sun is God." Oh, and what a glorious sun (and moon) he painted!

Turner's lesson to us all is never be afraid of going outside the box. If you feel that what you are trying to express is limited by what is around you, try it anyway. Take the luxury of trying something new, something never done before. It is this daring that continues to move art forward. It is too easy to copy the past. It is not written that you have to follow it however. Good luck!

Thank you for reading my blog. Please check out other blogs on a variety of topics but all centered around how they are designed.

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