Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Turner Classics


J.M.W. Turner

Metropolitan Museum of Art
July 1–September 21, 2008

The genius of British painter J.M.W. Turner dazzles at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. If you’ve never had an intimate look at the innovative works that made Turner one of the great 19th century artists, now is your chance. Not only are several Met-owned canvases part of this enlightening exhibition, there are also many masterpieces from London’s Tate Gallery, home of the Turner bequest. (When he died in 1851, the artist left hundreds of his own paintings, watercolors, sketches and notebooks to Britain.)

The exhibition is a stunning display of the art of landscape painting, a riot of brilliant colors and brushstrokes that prefigures Impressionism and even Abstract Expressionism nearly a half-century before Monet’s Waterlilies. It also demonstrates Turner's singular eye for nature’s cataclysms.

In every gallery hang works that will make your jaw drop in astonishment, beginning with the group of aptly-named “sublime” landscapes. Done on an epic scale, they combine historical subjects with traditional landscape methods. These paintings, including Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps and The Tenth Plague of Egypt, are a priceless introduction to Turner’s art.

Another masterpiece on loan from the Tate is The Field of Waterloo. This oversized canvas shows war’s disastrous effects on both sides in the conflict, as a group of people with torches search for the bodies of their loved ones killed in battle. The painting's most striking feature is the magical use of light and shadow -- reminiscent of Rembrandt, whose works Turner had recently studied -- as the battlefield is shrouded in darkness, fog, cloud cover, and smoke, with sunlight (or moonlight) trying to break through.

When Turner witnessed the fires that engulfed the Houses of Parliament one night in 1834, he made many quick sketches of the conflagration from his vantage point across the Thames. Several of those sketches are on display, along with two of his most horrifically mesmerizing “eyewitness” paintings of the event, on loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art (see image above) and the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The final galleries contain paintings created by Turner in later life, when he was experimenting with varied color combinations and with making characters and other objects in his landscapes ever more oblique and impressionistic, especially in his famed series of shimmering paintings of Venice. The canvases based on biblical events are deliberately stripped down to a simplicity that brings to mind the much-later, childlike works of Marc Chagall.

Unsurprisingly, Turner’s art was often misunderstood during his lifetime; a typically savage critic said that his innovative landscapes were “pictures of nothing.” Yet rarely has an artist harnessed nature and its potential for destructiveness with such beauty and imagination.

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