Observations on painting from “Turner: Imagination and Reality” by Lawrence Gowing

I read this book–a catalogue to accompany an exhibition at MOMA (the first time they had an exhibition of an artist dead for more than a century)–because Andrew Graham-Dixon called it the greatest essay that he’d read on art. It is a fine essay, a long way from the “art bollocks,” as Lin describes much writing on art. The book has a theory–that Turner was progressively turning away from “reality” to paint just light and colour (so forging a path that the Abstract Expressionists followed a century later).

I wrote a blog about Andrew Graham Dixon’s talk:


Here are quotes I took from the book:

“It is evident that Mr Constable’s landscapes are like nature; it is still more evident that they are like paint.” It is the fact that this became the new condition of painting that makes the old criticisms of now read like praise.

The old hierarchy was reversed. Colour assumed precedence. It existed first and provided the imaginative substance out of which the likeness of an external object could be made.

One colour has a greater power than a combination of two and a mixture of three impairs that power still more…and all beyond is monotony, discord, mud.

He imagined colour as a separate fabric, fragile and vulnerable, yet sacred and sufficient in itself to supply all the reality that is required from  a picture.

A drama of flame and water on which he had brooded all his life was being acted out in reality in front of him. [The burning down of the Houses of Parliament]

The colour and the paint have an intrinsic reality of their own.

Turner was now concerned only with the inherent light that colour generates within a picture.

When he died his studio was full of the images made by colour as if of its own accord.

“A picture is finished when the artist has done with it.” Rembrandt. Most painters of Turner’s generation were rebelling against the tyranny of finish.

The Burning of the Houses of Parliament released a fantastic force in Turner’s work. A barrier between reality and imagination had vanished; they were never distinct again.

Snow Storm was the result of an event in Turner’s life as crucial as the fire at Westminster. Again, a fantasy on which h had been brooding all his life became real. He recorded the fact in the catalogue: “The author was in this storm on the night the Ariel left Harwich.” He treasured the experience like a private possession.

“I did not paint it to be understood, but I wished to show what such a scene was like; I got the sailors to lash me to the mast to observe it; I was lashed for four hours and I did not expect to escape.”

He was 66, but his imagination was again convulsed by the reality.

Perhaps the whole essence of Turner’s last works might be gathered from the compound, infinite meanings that he gave to water. It was not only, more often than not, his subject; it was in many ways his medium. Water typified the world as he imagined it, a world of rippling, echoing light.

“Thou [the ocean] dreadful and tumultuous home of Death”….Perhaps Ruskin was right in thinking that Turner’s deepest subject was death.

Violence was an unflinching part of his palatte.

Light is not only glorious and sacred, it is voracious, carnivorous, unsparing, It devours impartially, without distinction, the whole living world.

The uncontrollable hazards of watercolour were the medium of Turner’s private imaginative life.

“Here and there, once in a couple of centuries, one man will rise past clearness and become dark with excess of light.” Ruskin on Turner.

Turner’s vision and his towering fantasy remain his own, beyond compare.


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