5.12.17 — Any Port in a Storm

“The archangel loved heights.” For Henry Adams, in the glorious opening to Mont Saint-Michel and Chartres in 1905, a trip to Normandy was a journey into the medieval mind. “Standing on the summit of the tower that crowned his church, wings upspread, sword uplifted, the devil crawling beneath, and the cock, symbol of eternal vigilance, perched on his mailed foot, Saint Michael held a place of his own in heaven and on earth.”

For J. M. W. Turner eighty years before, Mont Saint-Michel and its cathedral had descended not quite fully into a coarser and more interesting present. The rocky island off the English Channel glistens like crystal against a cloudy sky, J. M. W. Turner's Cologne: The Arrival of a Packet-Boat: Evening (Frick Collection, c. 1826)while smugglers in the foreground find themselves trapped by French officers, the low tide, moonlit sand, and artificial light. His port views, at the Frick through May 14, show his fascination with changing skies and a changing Europe.

Turner’s Modern and Ancient Ports” builds on views of Dieppe and Cologne harbors in the Frick’s collection, both from the mid-1820s. They have never looked so good. Framing an unfinished painting from the Tate, they glow as never before, and one can see why. J. M. W. Turner first lay down thin color, in the hulking outlines of mists, sails, buildings, and people. Layers of the very same or contrasting colors add translucency and intensity—with a central axis of light between land masses in perspective. The finished paintings top things off with natural highlights and human detail.

One might never have noticed just how much detail. Susan Grace Galassi, Ian Warrell, and Joanna Sheers Seidenstein count roughly two hundred people in Dieppe alone. As curators, they argue for a context in Europe after the Napoleonic wars. Ships stand for a partly decommissioned navy. People stand for the resumption of tourism and commerce, aided by the new technology of an industrial age. For Turner, as by its very definition, a port is a point of arrival and departure.

At the same time, he looks to a heroic past. A facing wall has oils of ancient Rome and Carthage, where a general faced death with his eyelids first torn away, to blind him by the light. So is Turner concerned for myth or reality? Is he out to blind the viewer or to keep up with the news? Surely both at once, just as Turner’s whaling pictures, recently at the Met, treat the sea trade as the scene of an apocalypse—and I have added this to my earlier report on that show as a longer review and my latest upload. It matters that ships or buildings can be front and back lit in a single painting, for greater precision and mystery, and it matters, too, that they are contemporary.

He delights equally in the middle class crowding the evening packet-boat and workers shoveling coal at night under a full moon. He does not shy away from smog, which past viewers have mistaken for fire. And a ready audience shared his delight. A second room adds twenty-six watercolors (along with an oil sketch) to keep up with the demand for his travels. If Turner’s thin underpainting itself approaches watercolor, he executed these not as studies for paintings, but as models for prints. He also filled notebooks with pencil sketches, for architecture rather than cross-hatching. He could attend to light and shadow back in his studio.

The period has a parallel in art after Postmodernism, with its mix of realism, abstraction, and fantasy. It also has a parallel in an age of globalization. In Turner’s hands, the rivers and coastlines of England, France, and Germany become a single theater. (It took Warrell to pin down the Tate’s painting of Brest, with folk costumes in its colors—much like those of women on the sands of Picardy in a painting from the mid-1820s by Richard Parkes Bonington, also on loan at the Frick.) The artist had traveled across the Alps to Italy as well, and early critics complained of southern light in his northern cities.

The Frick subtitles the show “Passage Through Time,” but one can easily overstate the passage. The work sticks mostly to a decade—between the careful distinctions in Turner’s early work and the madness of his late work. Paintings from this period have an overflow of creamy yellow that the fiery display helps overcome. One can overstate, too, his care for recent history or his nostalgia. He sketches fortifications, but with few marks of war, and he eliminates steamships, but little else. His archangel stops just short of the present.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.