What Our Current Infatuation with Turner Says About Us

Matthew Israel
Mar 4, 2015 3:26PM

The late works of J.M.W. Turner are suddenly everywhere. The two most visible examples of this are Mike Leigh’s critically acclaimed biopic, Mr. Turner, which follows the artist during the last 25 years of his life—and was recently up for an Oscar, and last fall’s major Tate Britain exhibition of Turner’s late paintings, which just opened at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Is there a reason why we’re focusing on Turner now? Leigh hasn’t commented on why he chose this moment to produce his biopic, simply explaining that it was primarily the artist’s idiosyncratic nature that captivated his interest. According to Leigh, “[Turner] just seemed like a really good character, and the tension between the sublime art and grubby bloke seemed to invite a film.”

While it would seem advantageous, it’s not clear the Tate and the Getty timed their exhibitions with the movie or had their own particular motivations for mounting the exhibitions now. According to the Getty’s website, the shows were prompted by the lack of a major exhibition of Turner’s late works—and the exhibition is meant to challenge assumptions regarding elderly artists, as these late years of Turner’s life (after the age of 60) were arguably his most productive and influential.


As we look back at art history, certain reasons sometimes emerge to explain why historical artists are foregrounded by particular times and cultures. So what cultural needs might Turner serve today? 

Perhaps we see in his work both what we long for and what we fear: a yearning for the natural environment he endlessly and carefully depicted before the domination of industry and technology, and a fear of the atmospheric chaos (i.e. the effects of global warming) his paintings became in his late years. Perhaps we also long for silence. The image of Turner alone, sketching and studying the natural environment, unhampered by a phone or other technology, is a romantic vision that feels beyond our grasp in this communication-saturated age.

Or is it the alluring simplicity of a figurative art history that resonates now? Because Turner in many ways opened the door to abstraction with his late works, some may look to him to consider where we went “wrong”—or where art moved away from the figure and became more complex and conceptual—and how we might go back.

Then there is Turner’s extraordinary focus and work ethic, one we might envy and learn from ourselves. Turner was obsessive about observation and painting from personal experience—he took about 2-3 major sketching trips per year for much of his career—and his output is one of the most comprehensive and prodigious examinations of the natural environment the world has ever seen. At his death he left 19,000 sketches behind. (His genius in this respect is easily quantified, as opposed to contemporary artists who have problematized such traditional conceptions of effort and academic practice.)

Do we long for Turner’s sense of adventure? His interest in encountering some of the more extreme forms of bad weather in order to capture the sublime is often cited and even led to a humorous nickname, Mr. Avalanche Jenkinson. The most well-known story of Turner’s daring relates to the making of his Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (exhibited 1842). To best observe and represent a snowstorm, Turner allegedly had himself lashed to the mast of a ship for four hours after it departed in the midst of a snowstorm. The resulting painting (of frothy pigment and swirling and hazy forms) is one of Turner’s most abstract statements, visualizing the triumph of atmosphere over what can be seen on land and at sea.

At the time, late works such as Snow Storm were labeled merely “soapsuds and whitewash,” but a few contemporaries, like influential critic John Ruskin, celebrated these pieces as among the most innovative of his career. Art history now sees this body of work as one of the origins of abstract art, foreshadowing the works of Whistler and Monet. Accordingly, art historian Robert Rosenblum called Turner’s late works “the most extreme rejection of the material world thus far in the history of painting” and (returning to the connection between Turner and global warming), added that they “could [also] have been mistaken for depictions of the end of the world.”

In our era of technological innovation, the quantified self, and information overload, we may also desire pictures, like Turner’s, that capture nature in the way that Goethe and the Romantics conceived it, connected to the vital spirit and the emotional effects of the world.

Could Turner’s lure be about the continuing mystery of his character, that aspect which motivated Leigh to make his movie? Ruskin was also fascinated by him, and called Turner “a somewhat eccentric, keen-mannered, matter-of-fact, English-minded gentleman: good-natured evidently, bad-tempered evidently, hating humbug of all sorts, shrewd, perhaps a little selfish, highly intellectual, the powers of his mind not brought out with any delight in their manifestation, or intention of display, but flashing out occasionally in a word or a look.” How an artist’s character results in their work is always one of the most enthralling riddles; because of Turner’s complexity and the influence of his work it’s a particularly difficult and important—and compelling —one for us to grapple with.

 J. M. W. Turner: Painting Set Free” is on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Feb. 24–May 24, 2015.

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Matthew Israel
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019