Wednesday, June 8, 2016

A Summer of Turner in New York

J.M.W. Turner, Fishing Boats Entering Calais Harbor
English, c.1803
New York, Frick Collection
Anyone interested in the works of Joseph Mallord William Turner can have a very interesting experience this summer on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.  Strung like a line of beads between the Frick Collection at 70th and Fifth and the Metropolitan Museum Main Building at 82nd and Fifth, with an intermediate stop at the recently opened Met Breuer at Madison and 75th, is a collection of Turners, ranging from early through late works and including some interesting insights into his working style.

J.M.W. Turner, The Harbor of Dieppe
English, c.1826
New York, Frick Collection

Interest in Turner ebbs and flows, but was given a bit of a boost last year with the distribution of the film Mr. Turner, starring Timothy Spall as the somewhat enigmatic and frequently strange painter of light effects.  So, it is interesting to see so many of his works available for view in New York.

The curious viewer can begin at the Frick with their permanent collection of five early works, ranging in date from 1803 to 1833.  

In most of these the forms are solid and the skies distinguishable.  These are the works that won Turner his initial fame as a landscape painter in the early 19th century.

J.M.W. Turner, Saltash with the Water Ferry, Cornwall
English, 1811
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

At the Met main building two works from that permanent collection which also bracket the early period are on display in the nineteenth-century European galleries, but it is the two special exhibitions that are ongoing, at the main building and at the Breuer, that are the most interesting. 
J.M.W. Turner, Venice, from the Porch of Madonna della Salute
English, c.1835
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Met is celebrating the opening of its new extension, the Breuer Building (once the home of the Whitney Museum), with a blockbuster exhibition called “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible”.  This exhibition explores the differing meanings of unfinished in the works of artists from the Renaissance to the present.  It is a large and impressive show which I have visited three times so far and plan to write about shortly.  However, enclosed within that show is a mini-exhibition of five Turner paintings.  When I say “enclosed” I am using the verb in a precise sense. 
J.M.W. Turner, Sun Setting Over a Lake
English, c.1840
© 2016, Tate, London

J.M.W. Turner, Sunset from the Top of the Rigi
English, c.1844
© 2016 Tate, London

The five paintings are presented by themselves in a small gallery within the main third floor galleries.  They are “unfinished”, presumably because of the artist’s death before he could complete them, and they offer us a fascinating glimpse into Turner’s working style. 

In one sense, especially to our 21st century eyes, they are already complete renditions of atmospheric conditions, from fiery sunsets on a lake to misty pastel hued sunsets on top of a Swiss mountain to a view of the Thames to the inevitable seascapes showing nature’s fury.

But what they really are is something different.  

J.M.W. Turner, The Thames above Waterloo Bridge
English, c.1835-1840
© 2016, Tate, London

They are stockpiled backgrounds, ready for the final touches that will turn them into one of Turner’s completed late paintings.

J.M.W. Turner, Margate (?), from the Sea
English, c.1835-1840
London, National Gallery
This may be the way in which he was able to produce the huge quantity of paintings he made during his lifetime, by stockpiling “backgrounds” until he had the time or inspiration or interest to complete the work, sometimes with just a few additional brushstrokes.  And they rather prove that, for Turner, the subject matter was virtually unimportant.  It was the background that counted.  

J.M.W. Turner, Rough Sea
English, c.1840-1845
© 2016 Tate, London

What these paintings would look like when completed can be seen in the later paintings in the permanent collections at the Met and the Frick as well as in the final piece of this summer’s Turner jigsaw of exhibitions.  This is the exhibition “Turner’s Whaling Pictures”, a small show on display in the European Painting galleries at the Met’s main building at Fifth and 82nd Street.

The exhibition features four paintings, which Turner showed as pairs at the Royal Academy over two successive years in the 1840s.  He was, therefore, thinking of them as a group.  
J.M.W. Turner, Whalers
English, c. 1845
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund

J.M.W. Turner, Whalers
English, c.1845
London, Tate Gallery

One belongs to the Metropolitan Museum, the other three are on loan from the Tate (as are
four of the five paintings on display at the Met Breuer).

When one compares the two exhibitions, it is easy to see how, with just a few touches, the background canvas could be transformed into the final painting.  There is nothing in the backgrounds of the whaling pictures that distinguishes them from the seascape backgrounds of the unfinished show except the addition, usually in the foreground or middle distance of some shadowy images that indicate whales, or whale boats or whaling ships.

Comparing them also shows how difficult it can be to assign a date to some of Turner's paintings, since the background may have been done months or even years prior to the brushwork that created the suitably acceptable subject and title required by the public at the time. This is not to say that Turner’s often long and poetic titles were entirely conventional and without controversy.
J.M.W. Turner, Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus! Another Fish!
English, c. 1846
London, Tate Gallery
J.M.W. Turner, Whalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flow Ice,
Endeavoring to Extricate Themselves
English, c. 1846
London, Tate Gallery

The works on display at the Frick Collection and in the nineteenth-century galleries at the Met Fifth Avenue building are in those locations indefinitely.  However, the “Whaling Pictures” will only be at the Met Fifth Avenue until August 7 and the four paintings in the “Unfinished” show will only be at the Met Breuer until September 4.  So, if you are interested, don’t hesitate to visit.  It could be a fascinating experience. 

© M. Duffy, 2016