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Waves of the Future

Celebrating the Realist Who Went Against the Tide

Water Colors: J.M.W. Turner's swirling, melting bands of hue in works such as "Fishing Boats Bringing a Disabled Ship Into Port Ruysd'l" pointed painting toward impressionism and abstraction.

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 2/20/2002

Reflections of Sea and Light: Paintings and Watercolors by J.M.W. Turner from Tate

J.M.W. Turner

Baltimore Museum of Art through May 26

To which J.M.W. Turner should one turn? People in mid-19th-century England bought thousands of his highly detailed prints depicting familiar landscapes and seascapes. But Turner's patrons were largely unaware of the freely drawn sketches and near-abstract watercolors through which Turner developed his ideas for those painstakingly realistic prints. These preparatory works meant a lot to Turner; upon his death in 1851, the artist's bequest to the nation of his contents included more than 20,000 drawings and watercolors done during his 60-year career.

This is the Turner to whom modern audiences prefer to turn, because the spontaneous style makes him seem like a prototypical modern artist. Sea, sky, and land energetically blend together as swirling and melting colors, carrying the artist from representation to the verge of abstraction. Turner's emotional response to the environment totally transforms it in many of his preparatory works and some of his finished oil paintings. The Impressionists of the late 19th century appreciated his atmospheric effects, and 20th-century abstract artists such as Mark Rothko thought of Turner as a kindred spirit. Indeed, Turner's circa-1824 watercolor "Pink and Yellow Sky," with its brown band of landscape, blue band of water, and yellow, pink, and gray band of sky, seems like a Rothko in the making.

It is Turner-as-prophetic-modernist that gets the spotlight in the Baltimore Museum of Art's new exhibit Reflections of Sea and Light: Paintings and Watercolors by J.M.W. Turner From Tate. You'd ordinarily have to visit the Tate's Clore Gallery in London to see so much Turner (78 watercolors and drawings, 18 prints, and seven paintings), and even there you wouldn't encounter some of them--25 of the works here are being exhibited for the first time, with Baltimore as the show's only U.S. stop. While the bounty of work on display beautifully illustrates its Turner-as-abstractionist thesis, you may leave the exhibit less than clear about the artist's creative process.

Look at Turner's watercolor study, "Harlech Castle" (circa 1830-'35), in which the titular structure is no more than a glowing yellow form; then look at the engraving hanging next to it, which was made by W.R. Smith in 1836 and depicts the castle and surrounding landscape in some detail. More start-to-finish visual sequences and more explanatory text panels would help us follow Turner's shifts in medium and style; in particular, it'd be nice to know more about the progression from pencil sketch to watercolor to print, and how Turner supervised the publishing-house engravers who turned his preparatory works into often quite different-looking final products. In that same regard, the absence of a catalog really hurts when a show has so much scholarly value. And although Turner's work is well installed within each gallery, the layout is somewhat confusing. Despite adhering to a basic chronological spine, the show subjects you to enough changes in room size, thematic focus, and traffic patterns to induce a Turner-esque haze.

But hang in there and let Turner wow you. There is something magical about his mastery of atmospheric effects, and it is interesting to see how such effects occur in his early and relatively conventional work, increasingly animate otherwise traditional subject matter, and then completely and sublimely take over the picture. As Tate curator Ian Warrell, who put together the show, noted during a press preview of the show, "There's nothing like this in British art prior to Turner."

You can see Turner tweaking tradition as early the late 18th century, in his gouache and watercolor "Moonlight Over the Sea at Brighton" (c. 1796-'97). The mostly black-and-gray palette gives it a moody tone suitable for the romantic temper of the time, but he seems to push further with a bit of glowing white. You doubtless can find other artists of the period using some bright white passages to achieve dramatic contrasts, but in the context of this exhibit "Moonlight" looks ahead to works such as the oil "Fishing Upon the Blythe-Sand, Tide Setting In" (undated, but first exhibited in 1809). Turner tops dark water with a sky dominated by a white patch of paint that illuminates some sailboats as sharply as any theatrical lighting director could.

Light plays a greater role in the latter picture; indeed, the atmosphere in Turner's mature works virtually swallows up the ships or whatever other natural or man-made pictorial elements more conventional artists would have called to our attention. Especially in the watercolors, one finds that the titles describe specific things you can just barely make out in the pictures themselves. "Study for a Shipwreck" (c. 1822), for instance, is really a study in vibrant yellow and blue. If you're looking for a detailed rendering of a ship, your hopes will be wrecked.

Most telling of all are the studies Turner did for a series of engravings called "Picturesque Views in England and Wales." These were the prints that made him wildly popular in the 1820s and '30s. Collectors presumably liked the readily identifiable views in the prints, but what would they have made of the studies that Turner kept in his studio and eventually gave to the British government? One such watercolor study purports to depict a "Castle on the Coast, Possibly Falmouth" (c. 1825-'30), but it is really a study in swirling grays. The castle itself is a small gray silhouette, no more than a ghostly presence. Is it Falmouth? Possibly. More fascinating is how strikingly Turner goes to the very edge of abstraction.

As well as looking forward from Turner's day, the exhibit does a fine job of showing how the artist who inspired future artists to make paintings about the act of painting was himself inspired by past masters--most notably the 17th-century painter Claude Lorrain, Turner's great hero. You can see that influence reflected in such Turner oils as "Rocky Bay With Figures" (c. 1827-'30), which depicts the sort of light-suffused, calmly classical landscape associated with Lorrain.

Not surprisingly, Turner ups the ante in his later work. What is surely the greatest piece in the entire exhibit, the oil painting "Yacht Approaching the Coast" (c. 1840-'45), features only a sliver of sail and a bit of coastline in the way of recognizable imagery. Otherwise, the painting is given over to what amounts to a glowing white vortex. It is so intensely luminous that it must be a divine light of some sort. This ecstatic Turner painting is like Claude Lorrain on Ecstasy.

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