July 06, 2008

J.M.W. Turner at the Met

The first major American retrospective of the work of Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) opened early in July at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and will run through the summer season. This is a big show in several respects - in volume of material (150 works), in the oversize format of the paintings, and in the larger-than-life reputation of Turner as a gifted, prolific and innovative artist.

J.M.W. Turner was the son of a barber and wigmaker and grew up in the Covent Garden area of London. His prodigious talent was recognized at a very early age and he was admitted to the Royal Academy at 14 where his work was selected for exhibition the following year. Turner became known for his landscapes done in the style of the "sublime" aesthetic that featured images of nature in its wild, savage state. His early watercolors and oils of remote castles in North Wales, of marine scenes on stormy seas, of alpine treks through treacherous snowstorms and of epic historical events, all evoke the grandeur and the tumult of the moment.

"Snow Storm - Steam Boat off a Harbor's Mouth Making Signals in Shallow Water", 1842

He later moved to a more light-filled and warmer palette and then to a style that can only be described as abstract-before-its-time. Disparaged by critics as "the fruits of a diseased eye and a reckless hand", Turner's canvas' can now be recognized as genius - avant garde art during the Victorian era. His depictions of the burning of the Houses of Parliament (1834), which he witnessed first hand, are masterpieces of abstraction and his late, unfinished paintings are precursors to 19th Century Impressionism.

"The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16th October, 1834", 1835

I tend to agree with the New York Times critic Roberta Smith's comment that this is a "beast of a show" that can "win you over or wear you out", and would venture to say that a little Turner goes a long way. But the overall impact is one of discovery and a new appreciation for the work of this British master of the landscape painting. J.M.W. Turner is on view until September 21.

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