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Sept. 12: Turner, the equivocal realist

The recent San Francisco show of the great Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) was the first time I had seen so many of his works together. I expected them to be fine, and many of them were; what surprised me was the soft and not always satisfactory dividing line between his reality-based semi abstractions on the one hand, and his semi-abstract narrative pieces on the other.


This watercolor (sorry–I didn’t note the title) is describing something, but it almost doesn’t matter what. It functions on an almost purely abstract level.

One level more descriptive is this ship in a storm. The description of the ship is minimal, but it works in a very satisfying way because it’s of a piece with the romantic exuberance of the sea.

"Snow Storm--Steam Boat Off a Harbors Mouth" 1842 [tate ]
“Snow Storm–Steam Boat Off a Harbor’s Mouth” 1842         [ ]
 But things get awkward with the Disembarkation below. Sky and central water are freely and lusciously painted; the trouble is with the crowds in the lower corners. They are obviously crowds, but unsettlingly vague and misty. The sky, painterly though it is, reads perfectly well as sky; if the people were treated with the same degree of literalism they would be much more firmer and more in focus. It’s as if Turner wanted to prove that he could include people without resembling the devices of his more prosaic colleagues. Instead he comes across as rather namby-pamby.

"The Disembarkation of Louis-Philippe" 1844 []
“The Disembarkation of Louis-Philippe” 1844 []
Then “Norham Castle,” which reads as a serene semi-abstraction until we come to that cow in the foreground. It’s a necessary firm bit to establish perspective and anchor the lower third of the composition, but it’s the most firmly drawn passage. We might not know without being told that the castle is a castle and not just a hill, but the cow is definitely a cow. It seems like a detail imported from another painting, never quite reconciled with its new home. Perhaps Turner was overcompensating for the wiffly figures in the Disembarkation.

"Norham Castle, Sunrise" 1845
“Norham Castle, Sunrise” 1845