Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Romantic Era (pt. 18)

Turner became an oil landscape painter after practicing first as a watercolor painter.  We can see the influence it had on his oil paintings, which largely appear, well, watercolory (for lack of a better term).  He did not pay attention to nature in realistic detail—as in, focusing on all of the minutiae to create a more photorealistic-looking image—but rather focused on the effects that light and atmosphere have on the subject matter.  He used blurred forms and intense colors to create the effect of a scene, rather than the scene itself.  (In other words, according to his philosophy, a night scene would be painted almost completely black, even though that doesn't make for a very exciting painting to look at, because it is how one would see it in real life).  Understanding this, we can see why Turner would approach, say, a snowstorm in such a stylistic manner.
This is Turner's painting of a Steamboat off a Harbor's Mouth during a snowstorm.  In the style of the Dark Romantics tackling the darker side of Romantic life, this painting is Turner's view of nature at its most violent.  His brushstrokes are harsh and disarrayed to demonstrate the wildness of nature.  There is not much color, and yet have you ever seen a more dramatic painting?  The fierceness of Tuner's subject seems to scream out at us—but no doubt in muffled cries overwhelmed by the almighty gusts of this tempestuous wind here pictured.  In fact, we hardly do see a subject at all; I can't discern too much of the steamboat in the painting, can you?  We can kind of see the flagpole and the flag in the center there, but not much else.  All we see is wind, icy and hostile, overpowering…something: it's too distorted by the awesome power of the storm to tell exactly what.  Nature in this painting is anything but tame and tranquil; this is nature at its most precarious, threatening, and utterly inhospitable.  Therefore different ideologically from its Romantic counterparts, the painting nevertheless falls into the same Romantic category of classification for reasons of historicity and subject matter continuity.  Even so, we can see how this is unlike any other Romantic work of art that we have looked at.  The style in which it was painted, too, proves wholly unique upon inspection.
At first wholly unintelligible, this work presents a dizzying image of the effect a snowstorm would have on an environment and one's vision of it.  Instead of detail, the artist has used bold, sweeping color and light.  Even though we can see the flagpole of the steamboat in the center, this work does not look very real, does it?  That is because Turner was painting abstract things like speed, wind, and atmosphere instead of tangible things like rocks, trees, and animals.  In this way, these kinds of paintings by J. M. W. Turner were remarkably ahead of their time, before Impressionism and Abstract Art would adopt the same approach to art—to create a feeling of an environment, instead of a literal, snapshot image; and to try to paint abstract concepts onto the canvas alongside the real objects.  This is a critical shift in art.  Just look at the splashing paint on this canvas.  If I hadn't told you it was a snowstorm, would you have known what this was an image of?
Although I connected some of Turner's subject matter here with the literary movement of the Dark Romantics merely by marking similarities on their treatment of nature as a darker entity than typical Romantic artists would have, there is still little explicit material to inextricably link J. M. W. Turner with the Dark Romantic movement.  He lived his whole life as a student of Romanticism, and even today his artwork still continues to be read as Romantic in style.  He died on December 19, 1851, and is noted to have said, as his final words, "The sun is God."

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