Monday, February 16, 2015

Canvas 2.16.15

Turner's Skies

One of my all-time favorite artists is Romanticist painter Joseph Mallord William Turner. He lived from 1775 - 1851 and painted mostly landscapes. He was one of those great artists who was actually acknowledged as a genius back when he was alive, lucky him. Even more impressive is the fact that, at that time, landscapes were not viewed as an especially important or respectable subject; he was just so good that he was still acknowledged as a master. A biopic about him came out recently (in which he is played, to some acclaim, by Wormtail), and I felt as though I should refresh myself before I went to see it.

The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire, 1817
This is one of his earlier, more formal pieces and, while not especially groundbreaking, the quality of the light and of the sky here are so wonderful. However, in much of Turner’s work, nature is not treated as a thing of beauty, but rather as the pinnacle of Romanticist sublimity.

Snow Storm, Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps, 1812
He frequently used moments of disaster or great violence as inspiration or subjects, like the burning of the Houses of Parliament or great sea battles.

Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On, 1840.
Can we just take a second to let the title of that one sink in for a second? I mean damn, what a scene to capture. The detail at the bottom always feels a little like William Blake to me, which is appropriate; it is a vaulting of this terrible moment into biblical epicness, vaulting it into Blake’s otherworldliness.

However, as he aged, his work became more and more abstract:

Sun Setting over a Lake, 1840
This abstraction is present in his earlier work as well, but here he eschews almost any sense of space or form. The work becomes more concerned, not just with the actual presence of the paint, but with the emotional resonance of the moment. They capture the mood and are more concerned with capturing the atmosphere than actual lifelike depictions. (Interestingly enough, the type of oils he used were not especially stable and so some of his paintings we now look at are pretty degraded, which adds to the effect.) If this sounds familiar, yes, he is regarded as a huge influence on the coming Impressionist art movement. Just look at the similarities:

Impression, Sunrise, Claude Monet 1872
(Although I do prefer Turner’s brushstrokes; they are just so delicate and so intricate.)

So when I started this piece, I expected to merely write a bit about a few choice paintings, Turner's influences on the impressionist movements, and basically just fangirl over a grumpy old late 18th, early 19th century painter. This is basically where I was going to stop. Instead I got sidetracked and I just wanted to share. You see, its interesting putting these paintings not just in an art-historical context, but a geological one as well:

In 1815, on the Less Sundra Islands of Indonesia, Mount Tambora erupted, the largest eruption in 1,300 years. So much ash, gas and other fun science-y stuff was thrown into the air that the entire Northern hemisphere was effected and 1816 is known as the Year Without a Summer.

Chichester Canal, 1828
But man, look how pretty it made these sunsets! Turner sure did; this eruption was so intense that it changed the quality of light on the planet. I feel this bears repeating: IT CHANGED THE WAY THE SKY LOOKED. (John Crome, who was also one of the first to paint actual trees, scientifically, and not make up idealizations, was another painter to capture these skies.)

And this isn’t the only time this has happened. Who here has heard of Krakatoa? Well, those brave Krakatoans did indeed go through quite an ordeal when, in 1883, Mt Krakatoa erupted. William Ashcroft openly painted and sketched the immediate atmospheric results. And who here has seen this painting?
The Scream of Nature, Edvard Munch 1893
That’s right, The Scream is thought to have been (among other things) a response to the eruption of Krakatoa. It's interesting that the last part of the title ("of Nature") seems to get cut off a lot.

And though I couldn’t find any good artistic representations of the sky during and after the Icelandic Volcano Laki erupted continually from 1783-1784, let’s just think about the fact that the clouds of blood-red sulphuric gases caused so much widespread famine and starvation in France for a decade later that it essentially CAUSED THE FRENCH REVOLUTION. And scientists are actually using paintings from these eras as hints at the ecological effects of the eruptions.

But in the end, all of this also reinforces Turner’s Romanticist tendencies. Any control we have is an illusion. We are tiny compared to the power of nature and it is constantly in flux; it does what it wants, we just live here. It’s like having an insane landlord.

But hey. It sure is pretty.

Sunset, 1830

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