Monday, April 12, 2010

Turner et ses Peintres, Grand Palais

I can’t remember ever having been to an exhibition where the displayed influences on an artist were more interesting and more captivating than the works of the showcased artist. And so I was very surprised to find this to be the case at Turner et ses Peintres at the Grand Palais. As I stood before paintings such as Jacob van Ruisdael’s Rough Sea at a Jetty (1665) next to a Turner painting, the title of which I can no longer recall, I was mesmerized by Ruisdael’s handling of paint as light: I was so completely seduced by the drama of a scene that is dark, looming, menacing, structured by the slither of light created by the moon, that I took little notice of the juxtaposed Turner (face to face Ruisdael’s painting is much darker than this reproduction above). Similarly, Constable’s The Jetty at Yarmouth (1823), below, is breathtaking. At least the clouds, with their lightness, their clarity that nevertheless hint at an approaching storm, took my breath away. Here, Constable, and in the previous example, Ruisdael acheive what Turner was striving for. They create dramas of light, light reflected, refracted, shining, diffused, cast, filtered and every other possible behavior of light as it interacts with air, as it is represented in paint. While I would be the first to argue that there are certainly Turner paintings that compare well to Constable’s and Ruisdael’s rendering of air, light and the ineffability of nature, they were not the focus at the Grand Palais. This is an exhibition that shows primarily minor Turner works as he searches for artistic expression. While this is potentially a fascinating project, at the Grand Palais, again and again Turner’s process was eclipsed by the brilliance of the works that surrounded his paintings.

The real problem with the exhibition was the way the paintings were paired. As my friend James remarked, the juxtaposition of Turner with his masters drew the kinds of connections our freshman students make in their writing classes. Because the logic of the pairing and the display of apparent influence was motivated by the content rather than any artistic principle or, given that it is Turner, the atmosphere or mood of the paintings. Even visitors with little knowledge of Turner’s paintings, will surely observe that Turner was not interested in things and objects for the manifest level of their content. In his most celebrated and remembered works, Turner doesn't care for people, buildings, even ships. These figures are included for what they enable in the depiction of light. For example, in Calais Sands, Low Water, Poissards (Fishwives) Collecting Bait, 1830 (below), the fishwife on the right is a compositional element that enables a focus on the effect of the sun as it sets on the substance of sand, water and air as the tide recedes. Turner is not interested in the representation of the figure, and neither is he interested in using the figure as the basis of a narrative. Thus, it makes no sense to juxtapose these paintings on the basis of the figures represented, as is done in Turner et ses Peintres.

It would have been a much more interesting and provocative exhibition if the Turner paintings were juxtaposed with paintings that engage in, for example, similar techniques, similar artistic principles, similar love affairs with landscape, seascape and light. A work such as Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth exhibited 1842 (below) is a masterpiece that looks to me as though it is calling to the compositional and painterly principles of early modernist painting. The uncontrollable power of the sea is returned to the surface of the painting as it so vividly indulges in the energy of the storm via dynamism of the brushstroke. The intense movement of paint as it is applied to a canvas is surely precedent of the modernist enthrall of the machine in full throttle? Wouldn’t it have been creative and enlightening to put a painting such as this next to one or other of the futurists? This is just one example of the many more interesting ways this exhibition could have been staged. Anything that moved away from placing Turner’s work in the context of classical and academic painting. Especially as he was critical of these schools, a criticism so visually evident in his rejection of issues of composition and the creation of narrative.

There is no doubt, it was wonderful to see some of the paintings, especially the later ones in the final two rooms. However, the curatorial choices ruin this exhibition. Turner's are works that are quite able to speak for themselves, and are perhaps best viewed in their home environments where there is time and space given on either side for their contemplation. My suggestion? Rather than waiting in line at the Grand Palais, time and energy would be better spent on the Eurostar to London to see the Turners at home, in peace in the Tate Britain. If, however, you want to discover some great works by Constable, Ruisdael, Poussin, and Claude, Turner et ses Peintures provides the ideal opportunity.

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