Looking Back, Reaching Forward

I’ve been taking a dive into the world of JMW Turner in recent weeks. I still have not managed to see the new film although hopefully I’ll get to see that soon.

I’ve seen Todd Henry of ‘Accidental Creative’ fame discuss a model that describes the phases of creative growth – discovery, imitation, divergence and crisis. The phases are just what you would expect: A growing awareness of an interest in an area; copying of the masters; making work that is their own; and finally a recognition that to move forward the old techniques will need to be abandoned.

There are clear echoes of this pattern of growth in Turner’s work. A major inspiration for Turner was Claude Lorrain, born Claude Gellee, 1600-1682, and sufficiently famous to be known just as ‘Claude’. John Constable described Claude as ‘the most perfect landscape painter the world ever saw’. The book ‘Turner Inspired – In the Light of Claude’ explores the relationship between the work of Turner and that of Claude from a century or more earlier and provides many examples of Turner’s recreations of Claude’s images.

There is a distinct evolution in Turner’s style with time. His early work closely resembles the paintings by Claude but slowly he drifts away from the precision embodied by Claude to something much looser. Eventually of course Turner’s work becomes very loose indeed, perhaps the result in his passing into the crisis phase?, which gave us work that was in turn to inspire generations of artists to come including the Impressionists and the case is made in ‘Turner, Monet, Twombly’ that the reach of Turner extended to Cy Twombly.

In this dive into the work of Turner I was struck by some of the comments on his use of color and in particular incorporation of ‘new’ colors into his work that gave it a sense of vibrancy bordering on gaudiness. As an earlier adopter of new paints that set him apart from his contemporaries I couldn’t help but wonder whether Turner over did it a bit with these paints in the same way that early adopters of HDR technology did initially (and still do in some cases!).

I do find it amusing that for someone like me who has largely ignored history I’m finally coming around to the recognition that there is much to be learned from those that have gone before us. Spending time looking back at the work of the masters can indeed help to propel us forward. Or as Mary Oliver put it in ‘A Poetry Handbook‘:

‘To be contemporary is to rise through the stack of the past, like fire through the mountain. Only a heat so deeply and intelligently born can carry a new idea into the air.’

Friday Inspiration: Thomas Moran

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It’s always surprising to me how there is a common thread between the things that catch my attention. I’d been looking at the work of Turner in recent weeks and in the course of that exploration read of his influence on the Hudson River School painter Thomas Moran. I was recently fortunate enough to be in a position to have access to to a couple of great books, ‘Thomas Moran: Artist of the Mountains’ by Thurman Wilkins and the National Gallery of Art book ‘Thomas Moran’ and was able to spend some more time reading about the influence of Turner on Moran’s work. The Wilkins book is quite dense and was something of a labor to get through, even though I only had time to read the sections on the intersection of Moran and Turner’s work. Moran spent time in London studying the work of Turner, learning the fundamentals of Turner’s technique such that he was able to make high-quality copies of the masterworks. This exploration of the use of light and color that began with emulating the work of Turner remained with Moran even as he developed his own distinct style.

Moran is perhaps most famous for his paintings of the american west and particularly of Yellowstone which were instrumental in making the case for the creation of Yellowstone National Park. It wasn’t these images that caught my eye but rather the ones that represented Shoshone Falls. The Shoshone falls when Moran painted them were considered to be unexplored by painters, although long recognized to be second only to Niagara Falls in magnificence. The section on the falls in the National Gallery book is particularly interesting. I was surprised to read that the painting of the falls at the top of the page was the last of his large panoramic landscapes and remained unsold at his death. My interest in the Shosone falls was piqued because it was the subject of another one of my favorite photographers Thomas Joshua Cooper. I’ve mentioned Cooper on the blog previously in a couple of posts first here and then here. His interpretation of the Shoshone falls can be seen in his book Shoshone Falls. A book that I’m going to revisit soon.

Check out the discuss of Thomas Moran’s work in the video below:

Friday Inspiration: J.M.W. Turner

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The image above was the first painting that I can really remember having paid any attention to. It was a figure in an encyclopedia of steam engines that I had when I was much younger and I didn’t get it at all. It took me a long time to realize that what I was looking at was a steam engine, a Great Western train crossing a viaduct, even though there was accompanying text that described the image. I didn’t get it at all. It didn’t look like a steam engine, a train or anything that I’d ever seen for that matter. That of course was the point. It wasn’t supposed to look like something it was an attempt to capture a mood, a sensation, a feeling. Looking at ‘Steam, Speed, Rain’ now I would say that Turner nailed it perfectly. At the time Turner made this painting in 1844 he would have been around 69, his position in the art community firmly established he was well positioned to push the boundaries of what was accepted as the norm. I suspect that many of the people at the time didn’t appreciate what he was trying to achieve and ridiculed him for his efforts. Even so, he pursued the development of this style of removing precise forms from his work leaving color and light to give a sense of the mood he was trying to evoke for the last two decades of his career.

Turner was one of the first artists to ensure that his work would be preserved following his death and so there is a rich archive of material from sketchbooks to watercolors and oils to study. I doubt how he got from the work that got him elected to the Royal Academy at the ripe old age of 26 to that of his later years will be clear from a study of the 40,000 or so works that he left behind.

This looks like a good year for Turner fans. There is an exhibition of his sea pictures ‘Turner and the Sea‘ now showing at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem.

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Also there is a film ‘Mr Turner‘ due to be released later in the year that stars Timothy Spall who won the best actor award at the 2014 Cannes film festival for his depiction of Turner. Check out the trailer below: