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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Turner et l’ivresse de la lumière

by Maurice Ulrich

Turner — Intoxication by Light

Translated Thursday 4 March 2010, by Henry Crapo and reviewed by Henry Crapo

At the Grand Palais in Paris, "Turner et ses peintres". An exhibition to help explain the most unusual path followed by the most singular of British painters.

In order to cast some light on what is singular about the new exhibition [1] devoted to Turner at the Grand Palais in Paris, entitled "Turner and his Painters", we will surely have to start at the end of the hall. The end of the tale, we may say, when the painter, born in 1775, approaching seventy years of age, creates works in which the forms are drowned in a saturation of light and explosion of color, in whirlpools of matter.
Behold Le Lac de Lauerzer and le Mythen, in 1848, The Waterfalls on the Clyde, about 1845, or again the incredible Snow Storm, at sea, in 1842, which the painter himself experienced, it being told that he had himself bound to the mast, not to listen to the songs of the sirens but to the great chaotic symphony of the unchained elements.

Copying the masters becomes part of the path of any artist

We begin at the end because the exhibition, of which we have no doubt concerning its success,
places meaningfully in evidence the place from which Turner starts, but this only makes sense if we can see where he arrives.

Imitation of, and even copying from, the masters becomes part of the path to be followed by any artist, no matter how great he is, and it is the sign of the greatest among them that they acknowledge their sources. At the Royal Academy of Arts in London, Turner would hear the discourse of its president, the great portraitist Joshua Reynolds say: "Always study the works of the great masters. Study them as close as you can, in the manner of, and according to, the very principles that guided them." But also, the essential, this: "Consider them to not only to be your models to imitate, but also your rivals to combat."

Turner entered the Royal Academy at the age of 14. Son of a modest barber, but inhabited by a solid ambition, he will produce much, imitate much, discovering simultaneously Rembrandt, Poussin, Claude Lorrain, of whom one painting caused him to collapse in tears. In 1813, he takes up, from Poussin, the theme of the deluge, and adds the reddening of a sun from the end of the world, and monstrous waterspouts. In 1928 he borrows from Claude Lorrain the theme of a seaport at sunset, but the sun is on the edge of inebriation, and light is everywhere.

The light he finds also in Rembrandt, golden when it clouds the body of Bethsabée or of the philosopher; in Watteau, in the distances where he draws Cythère ... He will bring it to the point of incandescence, whether it is a marine subject or a mythological scene as when Mercury is sent to warn Aeneas, or in 1850, with a train enveloped in smoke ... He permits us to see in another manner. Before Turner, Oscar Wilde said, "There was no fog in London."

It is always easy, after the fact, to see that the work of a painter has anticipated the work of those who came later. They say of Turner that he announced impressionism. This is something of an optical illusion. Light in Turner is a vehicle to transport the viewer, not a feature of realism. It is closer in a sense to Gustave Moreau and to symbolism. They say he anticipates abstraction, but perhaps he only wanted to dazzle his contemporaries. We remain speechless, nevertheless, before his Trois Marines, from 1827. Those horizontal bands of color. Look, we might say, that could be a Rothko ...

[1Until 24 May 2010. 
Catalog edited by la Réunion 
des musées nationaux. 290 pages. 39 euros.

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