Time Traveler

J.M.W. Turner's "The Dogana, San Giorgio, Citella, from the Steps of Europa" (1847)

Just as you found yourself comfortably attuned to painting as a two-dimensional medium, along comes an elaborate exhibition of work by the 19th-century English painter J.M.W. Turner to tell you otherwise. You find yourself asking, "Height and width, right?" That's all there is to this timeworn window into the world--those are its challenges, those are its limitations, those are its ingredients. Think again. Yes, his paintings are beautiful. But to get the full gist of Turner's work you have to take yourself outside and beyond the two dimensions of the work on the walls before you. You must go back in time--to the first half of the 19th century, to the great age of Romanticism when communication meant something entirely different from what it means today. In Turner's day, painters used beauty to teach moral lessons about the folly and foible of Enlightenment. For Turner and his contemporaries, color and brushstroke provided a powerful means to warn onlookers of the overweening yet all too human desire to know it all. So, pull on your travel gear and get ready to go. Otherwise you'll be left with nothing but the exquisite corpse of dead beauty.

Setting atwirl the time machine of painting, Turner and Venice, a vast showing of work by the Romantic painter now on view at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, lays bare the fact that, something like String Theory, painting operates in manifold dimensions. Yet, the privilege of Turner's work is one dimension in particular, that of time. Keeping in mind Turner's origin, it would seem that the English have a knack for time travel. After all, it is through that intrepid figure of the Time Traveler, the protagonist of ill-fated curiosity imagined by another Englishman, H.G. Wells, in the classic The Time Machine (1898), that readers have vicariously lived and loved fantasies of otherworldly escapism for more than a century. And then there's that more recent bulwark of temporal fugitives, Dr. Who and his assistants, the universe-traversing doctor and his helpers from the BBC show Doctor Who, which became the longest-running science-fiction television series in history.

Different from these wayfarers of time who travel via machine, Turner weaves poem and pigment, sending the viewer careening through time on a carpet of words and image. The idea here is that, instead of separating the two media, artists should bring together poetry and painting, thereby making a more powerful punch while also elevating painting from the realm of craft. In their fusion of text and figure, poetry and painting, the canvases of Turner hurl us literally into fantastic and historic time, sending us into the zone of mythology with "Vision of Medea" (1828) and to the biblical era with the "Holy Family" (1803). The paintings of Venice similarly embroil picture and poesy, as Turner constructs for us a window into the pound-of-flesh scene in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice in his "Grand Canal" (1837) and Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage in "Approach to Venice" (1844).

Turner's resplendent imagery of Venice reminds us of an era when the grand tour--an artist's journey through Europe's heroic past by way of traveling its cities--was absolutely essential for any artist aspiring for legitimacy. Amid visits to other cities in Italy, Turner's stops in Venice would be especially potent, turning the mortar, stone and tributaries of Venice into a bona fide urban muse. He would make three trips to the city, in 1819, 1833 and 1849, spending a total of only four weeks there. The exhibition at the Kimbell underscores the dalliance and intrigue of the Venetian cityscape, showing how Venice stole the hearts of many painters. The first few galleries of the exhibition are devoted to large-scale oil paintings made by other English and Italian painters, the most notable of whom is the master of the vedute, or view painting, the Italian painter Canaletto. Yet the most remarkable of these paintings was done by an Englishman, William Marlow. His acute yet surreal "Capriccio: St. Paul's Cathedral and the Grand Canal" (1795-'97) turns one great city into another, transforming London into Venice in a matter of wishful thinking.

By embedding Turner's work in its greater social and historical context, Malcolm Warner, the Kimbell's senior curator, has tailored the show to an American audience. Turner's intensity of color and flickering abstraction boldly emerge when set against the tight precision and detailing of the work of artists like Canaletto and Warner. While his peers strove to give keen form in painting to every detail of the city, Turner captured the feeling of Venice. Turner's Venice is a city perfect in its sense of utility as well as beauty. At the tip of Turner's brush the city shines forth as a dazzling archipelago of cultural diversity, robust economics and--as a theater of buildings on water--sundry architectural miracles.

Yet Turner so often renders these very precise qualities through a palette of willful smudges. Far from relegating "detail" to the trash bin, Turner rethinks it, creating a different, changeful yet poignantly distinct type of detail. As a master of atmosphere, Turner is preoccupied with the colors of the city, its sky and ground as ambient spaces in which the architecture of the city disintegrates into the elemental matter of color itself. For Turner, the lacy, filigreed façade of the Ducal Palace becomes an exercise in daub and impasto. In "The Dogana, San Giorgio, Citella, from the Steps of Europa" (1847) the ground and sky blur and fuse, disintegrate and reintegrate, in turn becoming part of a fuller continuum of color. The details of ground and sky give way to distinctions in color and the greater plenum of architecture and nature that makes Venice the other city of light. In a slightly earlier work, "Approach to Venice" (1844), this process of formal disintegration and reintegration yields altogether to a sense of the city-as-ether, as sky, matter and light become mere vapor.

While Turner's utterly vaporous paintings from the 1840s and after might appear radically modern to the contemporary eye, they actually send us tumbling once again into the realm of time travel. In taking us back to the world of Romanticism and early-19th-century painting, they also reveal to us a long-ago yet kindred moment of our own continually unfolding modernity. There in the space of time that is neither here nor there one ruminates over the winding road not just of painting but, more precisely, of abstraction within painting. We are returned to the verbal embroidery of that pre-eminent Victorian art critic John Ruskin, who so eagerly championed the ethereal abstraction of Turner's paintings in the early part of the century while lambasting the dark formlessness of Whistler's at century's end. Keeping in mind Ruskin's affinity for one and not the other, the question begs: Why for Ruskin was Whistler's work so forcefully a matter of "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face" while Turner's was the "symbolizing of Divine attributes in matter"? In short, Ruskin thought Whistler's formlessness was mindless and adolescent scrawl, while Turner's luminescent abstraction was the deliberative and holy negotiation of being human in a world just on the heels of the Enlightenment. Nevertheless, as one of the century's most important art critics, shouldn't Ruskin have been a little better acquainted with the rising tide of abstraction? Careful now: We travel through time as individuals of our world and not Ruskin's--as cyborgs rather than top hat-wearing uppercrusters--bringing both modern memories and a certain understanding of abstraction along for the ride.

Indeed, we are lucky to experience painting as a trot through time in our own back yard, as Turner and Venice at the Kimbell is the only American stop of a show generated by experts at the Tate Gallery in London. Don your walking shoes, eat a banana and drink a cup of coffee before entering the show--you'll need the boost of energy. While the show is but a slice of Turner's greater oeuvre, it is large. There are 33 oil paintings and some 128 works on paper, and you should scrutinize them all. The work is visually delightful. But it also makes for a productive sense of intellectual escapism--departure from a world at times frightfully boring and at others frightfully scary, into one perhaps less boring and scary but always exotic because of its almost foreign belief that painting could teach us moral values.

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