Friday, August 28, 2015

Turner around again

Just as Bernstein's Mass and Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe are among the few compositions that will make B. eager to get up and go some distance to hear them, the painter who has the same power on her is J.M.W. Turner. The last time we saw a Turner exhibition, it was in New York (we were going to be there anyway); this time it was in San Francisco - and still is for three more weeks, so others in the area may see it too.

So to the DeYoung museum we drove today, only to learn that our tickets were also good for a simultaneous exhibit over at the Legion of Honor that also had some Turner, as well as Constable, Gainsborough, and others. (Did you know that Edward Lear painted? I had not.) So, though tired and arted out, we drove over there too, and were glad we did, for though very interesting it was much smaller and wouldn't have been worth a separate trip.

The main Turner exhibit at the DeYoung is of his late works, from 1835 on. There were several rooms' worth. Even leaving aside the unfinished works of a few shades over white canvas, Turner's art of this period is mostly of very bright colors, with faint and uncontrasting figures and scenery hard to make out. This one is a good example, and to underline the point its title is "Angel Standing in the Sun".

When I look at Impressionist art with ill-defined figures, I always have the irreverent thought that the artist needed a new pair of spectacles. I don't get that feeling with Turner. The figures aren't ill-defined, they're just difficult to see clearly. And it took me a bit, but I realized the reason for this is that the brightness is sunlight - duh, check out this painting's title again - and it's that overwhelming light that is blinding the viewer's eyes.

The creativity and daring of this is what's impressive. And to think that Thomas Kinkade called himself "the Painter of Light". He didn't know a photon's worth of light next to the blazing sun of J.M.W. Turner.

Of course, Mr. Turner's contemporaries were often baffled too. Some of them who liked his earlier work thought he'd gone mad. (A similar reaction to what some devotees of Beethoven - only 4 1/2 years Turner's senior, though he didn't live as long - had to the Ninth Symphony and the Grosse Fuge.) A common view of Turner's late art at the time, reproduced in the exhibit, was this:

But we were impressed, and that is why we have new placemats depicting a Turner Tiber-side view of Rome on our kitchen table today.

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