Joseph Mallord William Turner has been called a single genius; unique among England’s many painters of talent, intelligence and originality. A magician at creating absurd sensory perceptions that evoked deep mystery, and a sense of he fugitive, through a force of feeling based on poetic conceptions that were in the,selves, furtive, restless and unhinged by strong desires to be both attracted and repulsed by light. These were radical pictorial visions that could only have come from an outsider to the artistic conventions of the time. Turner picked up an created an artistic aesthetic on what Plato called a ”quarrel of long standing” between the poets and the philosophers. A theory of emotions based on love and its reform or ascent. Turner’s transformative aesthetic played with the tensions in the relationships between emotions and judgements that ascribed importance or value to aspects of the world that we do not fully control. Turner modulated this by more specific explorations of compassion as an emotion.
Turner’s work is inseparably linked to his capacity for abstract thought, which enables him to go far beyond the immediate situation given to us by our senses. We can envisage situations, not just in the past but also the future. We can anticipate complex situations, plan, and thereby determine the outcome, and, to some extent, determine our own destinies. Although we do not normally think about it, this represents a colossal conquest which sets humankind apart from the rest of nature. Turner’s leitmotif seems to resemble Spinoza’s famous dictum of ”Neither weep nor laugh, but understand”. Turner’s work was an articulation of the violent impact of religion and the central philosophical quest of the relation between thinking and being; incompatible basic human activities which are bound in a complex relationship with genetics and destiny.
”Epicurus sought to free humanity from fear, by promoting a clear understanding of nature, and man’s place in it. He asked himself what is the basis of all fear, and answered, the fear of death. His main aim was to eliminate this fear, by explaining that death is nothing for me in the present, for I am alive, and will be nothing to me in the future, since, after death, I can know nothing about it. Therefore, he enjoined men to set aside fear of death and live life to the full.” ( Alan Woods )
The concept is ambiguous, rather like the “substance” of Spinoza, harking back to the ”why is there something rather than nothing” enigma to which there are no compelling answers. Simply stated, if the universe was once without motion—something which is impossible—there is no way it could be made to move, unless by an external impulse. But if the “unmoved First Mover” is not material, it is impossible that it should impart motion to a material universe. Moreover, this line of argument does not solve the problem posed, but merely shifts it back one stage. Let us accept that the “First Cause” set the universe in motion. What caused the “First Cause”? This question is not supposed to be asked. The answer is allegedly given in advance by the phrase “unmoved First Mover,” which, of course, answers nothing.
The popular confusion between genius and madness is clearer than ever in the biography of Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851). Academic painter in his beginnings, Turner was slowly but unstoppably evolving towards a free, atmospheric style, sometimes even outlining the abstraction, which was misunderstood and rejected by critics who had admired him for decades. The apparent chaos that filled Turner’s last works was criticized for being considered the work of a lunatic man. It’s said that even the Queen Victoria refused to bestow a knighthood on him – an honour bestowed to many less important painters- because she considered that mister Turner was simply mad.
In a certain sense, it was quite easy to label Turner as “mad”, considering his maternal precedent: his mother spent the last 4 years of her life confined in a mental hospital. In addition, William Turner himself spent his last years in Chelsea , with a woman named Sophia Boot, pretending to be a retired Admiral. But, in fact, the “chaos” that can be found in Turner’s works is actually the result of a complex artistic evolution in which the painter is several decades ahead of any other artist of his generation. Therefore, the lack of understanding which Turner suffered cannot be a surprise. ( www.artwolf.com )
Turner was a competent artist in his early teens, a successful one in his twenties, a great one during middle-age, and then a very great one until a brief decline just before his death at the age of seventy-six. We have become so accustomed to thinking of him in terms of modernism that it is always surprising to remember that he grew up in the eighteenth century. He was born in 1775 in Maiden Lane, where his father was a barber and wigmaker. If he was not born holding a pencil, he must have soon learned. By the time he was twelve he was already sufficiently consciof his identity to be signing and dating some not very impressive topographical drawings.
This signing and dating at such an early age can be recognized, without too much romanticizing, as the germ of Turner’s feeling in maturity that his work was a unit. If some of it had to be separated from the rest by sales to make money, which he loved, he refused to sell at any price the paintings he considered his best. When he died he left the contents of his studio, some three hundred and fifty paintings, of which more than half were unfinished, and nineteen thousand drawings to the nation. Anyone who had visited the Turner rooms in the London museums knows that Turner was right. Whatever the beauty and power of his individual paintings may be, their effect, as a single revelation, is overwhelming. A similar display by most artists, even great ones, would be only encyclopedic and exhausting.
At fourteen, Turner was admitted, on probation, as a student in the Royal Academy Schools, and returned to live with his parents in London. At fifteen, Turner had a watercolor in the Royal Academy exhibition, and for the next sixty years he was always represented there except when, occasionally, he chose not to exhibit. At seventeen, he was supporting himself by coloring prints for engravers. At eighteen, he set himself up in his own studio. By the time he was twenty, Turner was well established among printselers, was making money, and was conspicuous enough to be mentioned for the first time of many, in the gossipy diary of Joseph Farington ( 1747-1812) , a landscape painter whose daily jottings are a standard chronicle of the London art scene of the time. When he was twenty-one, Turner exhibited his first oil at the Royal Academy, and in the last year of the century, when he was twenty-four, he was elected to the academy as an associate member; at rthe earliest age permitted.
”It’s often said that Turner had only two true subjects: the anatomy of light and what Ruskin nicely called the “palpitating” vitality of paint itself. His learned preoccupation with optics, the struggles to analyze and represent the diffusion of light, fathered a poetry of radiance and grandfathers him into the ancestry of Impressionism; his emotively weighty manipulation of pigment did the same for Expressionism. So it is the Turners that most affronted the stuffy Victorians, mired as they were in anecdotal sentimentality and ponderous literalism, with which we most easily identify: pictures big with prophetic courage, the inkling of an alternative life for paint. With Turner, so this story goes, the story doesn’t matter; it’s the opera of the drenching colors, the unloosed play of the brush, the gouge of his untrimmed thumbnail scoring a groove through the sticky pigment— that’s his claim to immortality. Why should he give a fig about all those gods and heroes and Scriptures and battles?
Except that he did, obstinately and passionately, as the National Gallery’s show, opening in October, blazingly demonstrates. The procession of phenomenal narrative pictures that constitute its core makes it clear that we do Turner no favors by pinning the tinny little medal of First Modernist on him. Subject matter meant a great deal to him, and if claiming him for the poetry or the physics of light blinds us to the seriousness with which he yearned to be Britain’s first great history painter, he would not have thanked us. What, I believe, he wanted us to see was that, as far as the monumental oils were concerned, all his radical formal experimentation—the trowellings and the “mortary” quality of the paint surface that his critics complained of, the scrapings and rubbings and stainings—was at the service of those grand narratives. It’s correct to think of light as his subject, but when he was most ambitious light was a protagonist in an epic narrative of creation and destruction—an Anglo-Zoroastrian burnout.” ( Simon Schama )