Sunday, January 19, 2014

Art Eyewitness Review: Turner and the Sea

Turner and the Sea
By Christine Riding and Richard Johns
Thames & Hudson/288 pages/$60.00

National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London November 22, 2013–April 21, 2014
Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts May 31, 2014–September 1, 2014

Reviewed by Ed Voves

On first thought, it seems incredible that Turner and the Sea, the exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England, is the first time that J.M.W. Turner's "marine" paintings have been presented in a full scale exhibit on this specific theme. Yet, this is indeed the case.

Turner and the Sea will be traveling to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, later this year. That is remarkable as well, since exhibitions of Turner's paintings in the U.S. were rare events until quite recently. Many art histories aimed at general readers in the U.S. did not mention Turner at all. With the primacy of Dutch Golden Age art and French Impressionism in American museums, Britain's greatest landscape - and seascape - painter had a comparatively low profile in the United States.

The companion book to Turner and the Sea, published by Thames & Hudson, provides intriguing insights into the evolution of Turner's reputation. One of the book's essays, "Imagining the Sea" by Richard Johns, brilliantly traces Turner's influence on subsequent artists. Another essay makes a convincing case that Turner was a particular role model for American painters of the sea like Winslow Homer and Thomas Moran.

The turning point for appreciating Turner came in 1966 with a landmark exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Turner: Imagination and Reality was curated by the noted painter and historian, Lawrence Gowing. The MOMA exhibit contended that Turner's visionary late work was a harbinger of Modernism. Whether Turner's "pictures of nothing and very like" - in William Hazlitt's memorable words - laid the foundation for abstract art is still a controversial issue. But after the MOMA exhibit, Turner was once more a force to be reckoned with.

Turner certainly demanded respect and attention during his lifetime. His prodigious talent and energy, combined with what John Constable called "a wonderful range of mind," produced a body of work that almost defies comprehension. It has taken decades of patient investigation to fully grasp the extent Turner's legacy - thousands of sketches, water colors and prints and over 300 oil paintings. Turner and the Sea is but the latest in this ongoing effort to form a proper estimation of "the great lion" of nineteenth century art.

J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) was the son of a Covent Garden barber and wig-maker whose customers included many of the great actors of the British stage. Turner was drawn to the nearby docks along the Thames River and it was there that his fascination for the sea and ships began.

Respect for the working lives of mariners infuses Turner's work. An especially evocative example is Sun-rise, Whiting Fishing at Margate, painted in 1822. The scene depicts the competitiveness and camaraderie of the sea as fishermen in two different boats boastfully hold up the "catch" of the day.

J.M.W Turner, Sun-rise, Whiting Fishing at Margate, 1822

It was a love of the sea that Turner shared with is fellow countrymen, a nautical romance embodied by the tremendous popularity in Britain of Dutch maritime paintings. Turner and the Sea, the book and the exhibit, is revelatory on the influence of Dutch painters like Willem van de Velde (1633-1707) and Jacob van Ruisdael (1628-1682).

Turner's first great oil paintings were maritime scenes in the Dutch style, Fishermen at Sea (1796) and Dutch Boats in a Gale (1801). Turner was a master of water color and this ability soon made its mark on his artistic practice. His facility with water color enabled Turner to paint at speed, capturing the fleeting moods of the weather. In time, atmospheric effects like luminous skies and billowing cloud formations became the real subject matter of Turner's paintings, rather than the historical themes which gave his paintings their titles.

Turner's breakthrough work in this respect was a landscape, Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps. It was painted in 1812, around the same time that Napoleon's army was overwhelmed by the Russian winter during the retreat from Moscow. Turner's Snow Storm presents a similar spectacle, with Hannibal's stricken soldiers cringing under the iron lash of Nature.

If human beings are vulnerable to harsh weather conditions on land, then danger is far greater at sea. Turner had already painted two apocalyptic scenes of maritime destruction, The Shipwreck in 1805 and The Wreck of a Transport Ship in 1810.

A growing sense of the futility of human endeavor pervades these disturbing pictures. In the first, rowboats are picking survivors out of the heaving gray seas and there is a sense that some of the crew will make it to land. In The Wreck of a Transport Ship, which I saw some years ago in a special exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, the stricken vessel is about to plunge to the bottom while the escaping life boats and a rescuing schooner are being engulfed by wind and wave.

"No ship or boat could live in such a sea," a British admiral is quoted as saying, after he saw The Wreck of a Transport Ship.

If a growing pessimism about human existence can be detected in these shipwreck paintings, the real surprise comes in a work that should have been an unequivocal celebration of British victory. This was Turner's oil painting from the early 1820's, The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805.

Turner received a Royal commission to paint the decisive British naval victory of Trafalgar. The vast canvas - the biggest that Turner ever created - was destined to hang in the palace of St. James. But when King George IV donated the painting to the National Gallery of Naval Art at Greenwich, the legend arose that the British government was not pleased with the picture. This adverse speculation was made plausible by the fact that Turner never received a knighthood from the Crown while lesser artistic talents were so honored.

In their essays, art historians Christine Riding and Cicely Robinson demolish the myth that George IV looked unfavorably upon Turner's Trafalgar. But Turner's painting is a disturbing view of warfare and it is easy to believe John Ruskin's account that "old salts" from the Royal Navy expressed their displeasure about Turner's version of the great battle.

J.M.W Turner, The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805, 1823-24

Turner's Battle of Trafalgar was commissioned to hang with another scene of maritime combat, a depiction of the naval engagement in 1794 known as the "Glorious First of June." Both paintings show British seamen rescuing French sailors in the foreground while warships batter each other with artillery broadsides. The contrast between the two works is one of spirit, an unresolvable difference in the way that warfare is memorialized.

The earlier painting, by a French-born artist, Philip de Loutherbourg, presents the Royal Navy sailors in a heroic stance. The mood of Turner's rescue set-piece is totally different. It depicts a mass of struggling, suffering humanity, like the doomed occupants of the life boats in The Wreck of a Transport Ship. It is difficult to distinguish between British and French, victors and vanquished. The frozen look of horror on the face of the dying man at the bottom of the scene places the shocking, sickening reality of war directly at the eye level of art gallery visitors.

The final defeat of Napoleon in 1815 enabled Turner to travel to the continent of Europe. The effect of painting in the sun-drenched climate of Italy liberated Turner's palette. Light became Turner's defining subject. A famous cartoon showed him wielding a mop in place of a paint brush, dipped in a bucket of yellow paint. It was an exaggeration of course - but not without a touch of truth.

As golden hues flooded onto the picture plane of a "late-Turner," narrative content was largely banished. In the case of his seascapes, Turner explored the diffusion of light though veils of mist and fog. The struggle is no longer between human beings and nature. Rather it is the conflict of creative energy against the death grip of oblivion.

Turner's Off the Nore: Wind and Water, painted between 1840-45, is an almost completely abstract work. Except for the smudge of white representing a sailboat, there is little that represents figurative details or narrative content. Take away the ethereal, ghostly shape at the center of the painting, and Off the Nore dissolves into a series of horizontal sweeps of color. If we didn't know better, we might assume that it is signature work by Mark Rothko.

J.M.W Turner, Off the Nore: Wind and Water, c.1840-45

That comparison was made by Rothko himself when he visited the Museum of Modern Art exhibit in 1966. "This man Turner," Rothko exclaimed with studied irony, "he learnt a lot from me."

Rothko was actually so moved by Turner's paintings that he donated nine of his Seagram murals to the Tate Gallery in London where the vast body of Turner's work is maintained and exhibited.

Rothko's response is a key to understanding the mystery of Turner's work. This is especially so for the maritime art so brilliantly presented in this exhibition and in the Thames & Hudson companion book with its superb essays and the exceptional quality of the color reproductions of Turner's paintings.

Whether all or some of Turner's nearly abstract works were intended as studies or as drafts of paintings to be finished later, is really beside the point. Turner realized that man's relationship with nature and the sea is a state of constant flux. It is a voyage that will result either in shipwreck or in another voyage. There is no point of final destination. Later painters from Richard Parkes Bonington in the 1820's to Rothko in the 1960's sailed through seas that Turner had earlier explored.

Turner labored throughout much of his life, writing a gloomy, soul searching poem entitled "The Fallacies of Hope." Occasionally, he placed excerpts of his verses on the frames of disaster-themed paintings like Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps. But Turner’s vision of life was not entirely despairing. As we can see in Turner and the Sea, he was also motivated by the undeniable fact that ships and the creative spirit of humanity are not intended to remain at anchor, safely in port.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved

Images Courtesy of Thames & Hudson

Introductory Image: Turner and the Sea, 2013 (cover) Image credit: Thames & Hudson

J.M.W Turner, Sun-rise, Whiting Fishing at Margate, 1822, Private collection, UK

J.M.W Turner, The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805, 1823-24, © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Greenwich Hospital Collection

J.M.W Turner, Off the Nore: Wind and Water, c.1840-45, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection


Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Art Scene in 2013

Art Eyewitness Looks at the Art Scene in 2013

By Ed Voves

It was inevitable that the art world in 2013 should look back a century to 1913.

The last year before peace and "the idea of progress" died in the trenches of World War I was marked by landmark cultural events. The riotous opening night in Paris of the ballet Rite of Spring, the founding of the Omega Workshops by Roger Fry, the publication of the first volume of Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past and the introduction of modern art to the United States at the Armory Show all took place in 1913.

Léon Bakst, Ballets Russes Costume design for The Afternoon of a Faun

Two of these 1913 events were celebrated by major exhibitions. The National Gallery in Washington D.C. remembered Rite of Spring with Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929: When Art Danced with Music. The New York Historical Society mounted The Armory Show at 100, commemorating the moment when New York City and avant-garde art in the United States became virtually synonymous.

The turn of the year is the "Janus" moment in many spheres of life, but in the arts this is especially true. It's time to take stock of creative achievements, memorable exhibitions and notable events in the arts over the past year. It is time to look forward, too.

No event relating to the arts in 2013 is of more concern than the announcement that appraisers from Christies have surveyed the collection of the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA) for the possible sale of art works purchased with municipal funds. The bankruptcy of the city of Detroit is, of course, no small matter. Saving essential city services for the people of Detroit is the immediate concern. But as a revenue generating initiative, it is difficult to conceive a more misguided plan than auctioning a community's cultural heritage. To borrow a remark by Talleyrand, it is "worse than a crime, it's a mistake."

The Detroit Institute of Art

Plan B for the DIA is a proposal by Chief US District Judge Gerald Rosen to create a private trust, based on funds from private foundations, which would buy the entire museum and its collection. This may seem like a better idea than selling masterpieces - at first glance.

Private charities can achieve great things for the arts - and regularly do. But it needs to be remembered that when private organizations and foundations combined with the art institutions of Philadelphia to save Thomas Eakins' The Gross Clinic from being sold to a Walmart-funded museum in Arkansas, there were hidden costs. Several major paintings from the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts had to be sold to raise funds to pay the tab for The Gross Clinic.

What is to prevent a privately-run Detroit Institute of Art from selling a Rembrandt or Matisse whenever it feels the need to replenish its coffers?

Municipal art museums don't need to sell gems from their collections. They generate significant amounts of revenue each year and special exhibits are noteworthy in this respect. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York mounted a spectacular exhibit in 2013, Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, which later moved to the Art Institute of Chicago. Like Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, the Impressionism exhibition brilliantly integrated period clothing of all types, female and male, to show how the world of fashion influenced the realm of the visual arts during the late 1800's.

Gallery view at the Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity exhibit

What has this to do with the plight of the city of Detroit and the DIA? Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity at the Metropolitan Museum, along with two other popular exhibits, produced astonishing profit figures for the city of New York. According to a press release from the Metropolitan, the Impressionism show, with Punk: Chaos to Couture and The Roof Garden Commission: Imran Qureshi, "generated an estimated $742 million in spending by regional, national, and international tourists to New York."

I blinked twice at these numbers myself, but the Met's press release backed-up its claim with detailed statistics that included tie-in revenue from expenditures by museum visitors on hotels, restaurants and theater: "The full-year estimate of visitor spending in New York by out-of-town visitors to the Museum in fiscal year 2013 is $5.4 billion."

Detroit cannot match New York's theater district or other tourist attractions. But the cultural life of cities is a major indicator of their economic viability. Detroit, "Motown," is not without considerable resources to promote a resurgence - and the DIA is one.

The Detroit Institute of Art has a collection matching that of the Metropolitan Museum in quality of its works of art, if not in number. Along with magnificent paintings by Rembrandt and van Gogh, the DIA has major works by artists rarely seen in U.S. collections. Martha and Mary Magdalene by Caravaggio, The Peasant Dance by Breugal and Interior with a Lady by Vilhem Hammershoi are just a few of the DIA's A List masterpieces.

Surely works of this magnitude could anchor traveling exhibits to help raise revenue and insure that the DIA remains a municipal art museum with its collection intact and future assured.

Selling these treasures, on the other hand, is the cultural equivalent of eating bread made with seed corn needed for next year’s crop.

Traveling exhibits are not just a good idea. They are an affirmation of a community’s belief in itself and an appeal to the wider world to share in the cultural riches it has to offer.

Leonardo da Vinci, Head of a Young Woman

Italy, not exactly flush with cash at the moment, declared 2013 the Year of Italian Culture in the United States. A wide range of cultural and artistic programs are being mounted throughout the U.S., notably the exhibition of rare drawings by Leonardo da Vinci and his followers at the Morgan Library in New York City. The works on display, from the Biblioteca Reale in Turin, include the exquisite Head of a Young Woman which served as the model for Leonardo’s painting, Virgin of the Rocks.

Greece, in even worse economic shape, sent Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections, first to the National Gallery in Washington, where its opening was delayed by the budget brinkmanship in Congress during October. After Heaven and Earth completes its run at the National Gallery on March 2, 2014, it will travel to the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

American museums – with the help of enlightened donors – are equally capable of promoting the welfare of their communities.

A good example was provided by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. PAFA has a splendid collection of 9,500 works on paper - drawings, sketchbooks, watercolors and prints. PAFA's Victorian era museum in downtown Philadelphia, designed by Frank Furness, is largely illuminated by natural light from its many skylights. It's a wonderful setting to see great oil paintings by Winslow Homer or Thomas Eakins. Natural light, however, is the worst possible environment for displaying water colors, which are subject to fading, and this is one reason why this artistic medium is so little appreciated.

The Richard C. von Hess Gallery at PAFA
In October, PAFA opened the Richard C. von Hess Foundation Works on Paper Gallery in the Furness building specifically to exhibit light-sensitive works of art. Several interior rooms, formerly office space in the museum, were converted to create the gallery. A special study room for research scholars is part of this museum space.

The effect of examining art in this sanctuary-like setting is stunning. The first exhibition in the von Hess Gallery, Hidden Treasures Unveiled, displayed water colors from Benjamin West in the eighteenth century to modern and contemporary artists. Most of the names are familiar, but the effect of studying these water colors in the carefully-controlled lighting conditions of the von Hess Gallery is like seeing a great artist's work for the first time.

2013 marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of another museum "display-space." Opened to the public in 1938, The Cloisters is the Metropolitan Museum's special collection of medieval art. The Cloisters is located on a 56 acre park at the northern tip of Manhattan, donated by John J. Rockefeller, Jr. These works are housed in a facility that incorporates structural elements from buildings from the Middle Ages like the Cuxa Cloister.

The Cuxa Cloister at The Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art

To preserve the wooded skyline on the opposite bank of the Hudson, John J. Rockefeller Jr. bought and donated 700 acres of the New Jersey Palisades, setting them out of reach of real estate developers.

The result of such far-sighted planning created one of the few places where religious art does not sacrifice its original purpose and meaning by being displayed in a civic structure. The Cloisters may not be consecrated ground like a real church but it does exude a sense of holiness and solemnity like few other museums in the world.

If you think - as I once did - that a major achievement like building The Cloisters could never be repeated, visit the Metropolitan Museum's galleries devoted to Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia. An eight-year renovation project, completed in 2011, transformed these galleries into an inspirational setting for contemplating works of art from the Islamic world - or just for contemplation and meditation, exactly as one can do at The Cloisters.

Moroccan Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

This past spring and summer, the Met presented a thoughtful exhibition, Making the Invisible Visible: Conservation and Islamic Art, which detailed the methods used to preserve the rare and precious works of art now on display in the new galleries. An additional exhibit, Fifty Years of Collecting Islamic Art which opened in September, celebrates the establishment of a separate department for Islamic art at the Metropolitan Museum in 1963.

Enlightened patronage in the arts was powerfully expressed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art's "Great and Mighty Things" exhibition, held in the spring of 2013. Nearly 200 works of art by self-taught artists were displayed in this remarkable exhibit. The museum's design staff, one of the best in the business, created a sense of interior space for displaying the work of each of these "Outsider" artists. Many of them were poor or physically and emotionally challenged individuals, working in obscurity on themes that often defied categorization or ready explanation.

Felipe Benito Archuleta, Lynx

Back in the 1970's and 80's, when most art lovers were fixated on "mega" exhibits of the Impressionists, Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz began collecting Outsider art. Jill Bonovitz is one of the co-founders of the prestigious Clay Studio in Philadelphia, which helped anchor a revival of the Old City neighborhood of Philadelphia, a once blighted area not far from the historic sites in the city.

The Bonovitz collection, which includes work by the now-legendary Bill Traylor, has been promised to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This is an almost text-book example of how a visionary role for fine art can help restore a city's image and finances - including Detroit's.

The Detroit Institute of Art has a remarkable spiral staircase among the many beautiful architectural details of its building. Reflecting upon it set me to thinking about the unforgettable photograph taken during the Nazi air attacks on London in 1941. Bombed Regency Staircase was taken by Bill Brandt, the German-born lensman who became the greatest British photographer of the twentieth century. The Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted a retrospective of Brandt's works in 2013.

Bill Brandt, Bombed Regency Staircase, Upper Brook Street, Mayfair

Bombed Regency Staircase demonstrates that the human instinct for beauty can survive, indeed flourish, during a concerted effort to destroy or subvert it. But can this instinct for beauty and the great museums created to safeguard its creations survive the great peril of our times? I speak of the wanton negligence and cultural amnesia that increasingly characterize society's attitude to art, to things of the spirit.

Let us hope that 2014 will provide us with a positive answer to that question.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved

Introductory Image:
Albert Bartholomé (French, 1848–1928)
In the Conservatory (Madame Bartholomé)
ca. 1881
Oil on canvas
9 1 3/4 x 56 1/8 in. (233 x 142.5 cm)

Musée d'Orsay, Paris Gift of the Société des Amis du Musée d'Orsay 1990                                                                           
Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Léon Bakst,(Russian, 1866–1924)                                                                                Costume design for Vaslav Nijinsky as the Faun from The Afternoon of a Faun, 1912, graphite, tempera, and gold paint on paper                                                                    Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT,
The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund                                                      
Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Detroit Institute of Art
Exterior of DIA with Fountain
Image © The Detroit Institute of Art

A view of the Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity Exhibition                                 Presented by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Feb. 26 to May 27, 2013                         Photo by Anne Lloyd

Leonardo da Vinci (Italian, 1452–1519)
Head of a Young Woman (Study for the Angel in the ‘Virgin of the Rocks’), 1480s
Metalpoint heightened with white on buff prepared paper
181 x 159 mm
© Biblioteca Reale, Turin (15572 D.C.)                                                                       Image courtesy of the Morgan Museum and Library

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts                                                                   View of the Interior of the Richard C. von Hess Foundation Works Gallery                       Image courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

The Metropolitan Museum of Art                                                                                  View of the Cuxa Cloister
From the Benedictine monastery of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa (San Miguel de Cuixà), near Perpignan, France, ca. 1130–40
The Cloisters Collection, 1925
Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Metropolitan Museum of Art                                                                                Moroccan Court
Patti Cadby Birch Court
New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later
South Asia
Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Felipe Benito Archuleta (American, 1910-1991) Lynx, 1977.
Cottonwood, paint, sisal, sawdust, glue, 37 x 15 x 29 inches (94 x 38.1 x 73.7 cm)
The Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection,

Photography by Will Brown                                              
Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany. 1904–1983)                                                           Bombed Regency Staircase, Upper Brook Street, Mayfair, c. 1942                               Gelatin silver print 9 x 7 5/8" (22.8 x 19.4 cm)                                                         Acquired through the generosity of Clarissa Alcock Bronfman                                  Museum of Modern Art, New York                                                                                    © 2013 Estate of Bill Brandt                                                                                             Image courtesy of MOMA