Although the Tate Britain is perhaps most famous for being home to the Turner Gallery and Turner is most famous for his treatment of light and water, I found certain of my set ideas upset by the paintings which I looked on that day. Trees erupted from the foreground into the sky, and it seemed that their leaves had received greater attention than the clouds. In others, where I had expected to find English seascapes, I found instead southern German landscapes.
In two such pieces, my companion could trace the late phases of Turner’s artistic development. If there had been no alteration in the landscapes seen during his travels through Germany and which had begun as early as 1817, their translation into his works had not remained the same with the arrival of the 1830’s and 40’s. The painter’s depiction of the Walhalla’s opening by Ludwig I in 1842 captured the water upon the river shoals and the valley’s dissipating into backlit mists.
Yet, upon being offered up for exhibition in Munich in 1845, the public received the painting with, as per the signage, much perplexity and puzzlement, and it owed, as best we could reckon, to the crowds in anachronistic garb gathered at the painting’s lower right, as if they had been lifted wholecloth from an Italian Renaissance piece. Or this resulted rather from the lack of a clear visual and moral center. For the eye was strung out between Walhalla, the crowds and the vantage point lost to sight in the mist, nor did the painting’s message of admiration, nostalgia or irony seem overly clear.
A second German sketch treated a period somewhat further removed from the present day and this time in Heidelberg. From the wash of orange and yellow emerged boats and belfries, as well as the red sandstone of the castle still to be wrecked. A small knot of figures also stood out against the background. Of particular note was a couple, whose identification served to mark the period. For at the knot’s center, our eyes found the Winter King and Queen, Friedrich V, the Elector Palatine and Princess Elizabeth Stuart. In their union lay the seeds of the Thirty Years War yet its end followed from other than their exile to the Dutch United Provinces. Looking more closely at Turner’s brushwork and the burnished quality of the hill behind the figures, I could imagine the first glints and coals of the fires to come to that city.
This last preparatory sketch illustrated one point rather well. As his career progressed and the first years of the 1840’s dawned, it seemed likely that Turner’s perception of relations between landscape and light, figures and foreground had altered as well. Each element had acquired something of a waver. Indeed, I thought to find in each a cycle of suffusion and absorption by which Turner had first filled the element to brimming with light, only then to work a hole somewhere about its surface so that that same light might leak back out and distort the surroundings. Perhaps this change in perception owed to a process more practical than abstract, whereby he had taken to painting with a cloth wound about his eyes, each element reduced to a luminous haze, or so I fancied.
One painting provided a rather lighthearted footnote to the above. The description to the 1809 Fishing upon the Blythe-Sand, Tide Setting In made it clear that the canvas had been made to serve as a catflap for one door in Turner’s residence. If Turner had deemed such necessary, it owed mostly likely to spite. It seemed that an art critic had expressed interest in the work and even inquired about its purchase after previous refusal to engage substantively with the painter’s work. To this, in a refreshing turn, Turner reacted in typically human fashion: to make of the beautiful thing something utilitarian. From it had vanished the atmospheric, and in it we found the adversarial.