There are times when art transcends beauty. Paintings, like Joseph Mallord Turner’s (1775-1851) “Study of Sea, and Sky, the Isle of Wight” (1827) can become the soothing salve of the Creator when the art is reflective and the subject accessible. Despite what might be most obvious, I don’t believe that accessibility requires realism. In fact,entrée to experiencing the eternal values may be easier in the scarlet and golden haze of fear, as in the “The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons (he witnessed the catastrophic event on the evening of 16 October 1834 and apparently began the iconic work in 1834 and finishing in 1835).” JMW Turner, R.A., that prodigious English landscape artist of the Romanticism in England, the British Sturm und Drang (German: “Storm and Stress”), demonstrated a perceptible theology in his paintings. It is as if Turner’s personal and deeply spiritual struggles were “on exhibit” in the extraordinary codex of paintings. The nature of the artist and his work lends itself to what is now, perhaps fashionably, labeled “a public theology.”
Turner, a Londoner by birth and habitation, was a worshipper of God at Saint Paul’s and is buried there. Yet, an orthodox Christian faith is unfocused with a promiscuous blurring of lines, melding of colors of spiritualism, secret societies, and a sensate, unconventional life, especially in his relationship to women. JMW Turner was the progenitor-genius of Impressionism (Monet admitted that he borrowed from Turner). Turner’s paintings, like his faith, may be studied up close but viewed best with some distance. Somewhat like one of the major influences of his work, Philip James de Loutherbourg RA (1740-1812), who demitted from a pathway to Holy Orders, Turner’s theology seemed, at once, to be running from childlike faith in Christ to seeking the meaning of such faith in the mysterious of Creation. It is in this labyrinth of a deeply personal, if not idealized, spirituality that we come to connect with the theology of his work.
The Light and Consciousness
Often, his biographers direct our attention to light. One would be foolish to deny the obvious. Yes, light is a predominant feature. But why? In Turner there is not merely light, but light leading the viewer in search of meaning: De la recherche de la vérité. Turner’s mother died at Bethlem Home for Lunatics. The word “lunatics” stings the eyes of the modern reader as pejorative and cruel but was a democratic if not sorrowful description in Turner’s day. Turner’s faith was like his English fishing boats in the foggy harbor, present but almost indiscriminate within an opaque veil of blurred fog, storming sea, and turgid charcoal skies. The loss of a mother, an emotional invalid in an environment so unlike the smell of mother, so chaotically different than her quiet voice and her soft presence, with indignities piled upon indignities, introduced a viral infection in Turner’s spirit. The virus enlarged. The imperial pathology conquered an otherwise vibrant constitution in the prodigious artist. Turner, who led a secluded life, never marrying (although one elongated romance was purported to have produced children; but the hesitant mention of the illegitimacy was nothing more than cruel, hushed hearsay), preferring distance from his admirers and collectors, displayed muted but discernable evidence of just such a spiritual infection (in his work). It is interesting to note that Turner was known for his endless seeking of promotion and his competitive drive to become known as the greatest painter in England while at the same time demanding his privacy (he gloried in the “vernissage,” or “varnishing days,” a private viewing of the artists completing their work, which event Turner used as a “competition” to show his prowess with both speed and technique). We have seen this paradox in other celebrities, of course (and this enigmatic proclivity deserves further thought). In another age, and in another form of art, the enigmatic singer-songwriter, Neil Young was asked to explain his songs. He responded, “It’s in the music. Just listen.” In a similar way, the answer to the puzzle of Turner is, also, “It’s in the painting. Just look.” No single work of the Tu
The Violent Beauty of Life
Consider the painting on this page, “Study of Sea and Sky, the Isle of Wight” (1827). This is a departure from Turner’s watercolors and mixed media (watercolor and oils). The canvas is given a rather thin veil of the oil painting by Turner. The canvas shows through. There is some build-up of paint on the bottom-right-hand side, revealing the technique of Turner as he piled on the paint thereby using a corner of the canvas as a pallette. This, in itself, reveals a departure from the norm but one that suited Turner just fine. Decades upon decades have muted the vibrancy of the colors. But years cannot steal the briny smell of the sea, the chilling mist in your face, or the sense of awe over the untamable waves.