Very Like a Whale

John Haber
in New York City

J. M. W. Turner: Whaling Pictures and Port Views

"A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted." Could Herman Melville have had in mind a picture by J. M. W. Turner?

Turner was not nervous and distracted, but stubborn in his detachment. (So, I suspect, was the author of "Bartleby" and "I prefer not to.") A sketch late in life shows him obese but vigorous, much like the clotted surfaces of his late paintings. Nor did Melville's hero think right off of a painter entering his seventies. He found "such unaccountable masses of shades and shadows, that at first you almost thought some ambitious young artist . . . had endeavored to delineate chaos bewitched." J. M. W. Turner's Whalers (Tate, Turner Bequest, c. 1845)Yet he also found bewitchment, and so do Turner's whaling pictures at the Met.

"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 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, 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 show his fascination with changing skies and a changing Europe.

Melville in London

I was just three chapters into Moby-Dick, with no sign of a whale. Ishmael had not set foot on a whaler, and Ahab had not set foot in the novel, but I knew it was for me. Ishmael had checked into the Spouter-Inn, when he happened to set eyes on "a very large oil painting." The book has a formidable reputation, for difficulty and high seriousness, but who could miss the black humor in what he sees? Melville could be invoking Le Chez-d'Oeuvre Inconnu ("The Unknown Masterpiece"), Honoré de Balzac's witty parable of the painter who struggled so long and so hard to capture the essence of life that he produced little more than squiggles—a novella that was to inspire Pablo Picasso. He could be mocking his own reputation for "that one portentous something."

The Met leaves the choice to you, with the latest in its small focus exhibitions. It has examined artists from its collection in context, including Francisco de Goya, Lucas Cranach, Andrea del Sarto, and most recently Jan van Eyck. Here it brings together four paintings that J. M. W. Turner exhibited at the Royal Academy in pairs, beginning in 1845, the year of Balzac's novella. Turner had a knack for staging his exhibitions, but who knew that he turned his interest in seascapes to sperm right when he found patronage in a whaling magnate, Elhanan Bicknell? Romanticism ushered in a broader audience for painting, and money talked, very much like today. It also brought that "long, limber, portentous, black mass."

To trust the Met, it brought a new interchange between art and literature as well—and between England and America. The curator, Alison Hokanson, displays lamps that burned whale oil on both continents, and she follows Melville to London, where he may or may not have seen the four paintings. At the very least, he and Turner drew on the same British natural history of whaling, and Melville knew it. He noted Turner's reliance on that history in his own hand in the margins. And the passage at the Spouter-Inn speaks Turner's language, the language of the Romantic sublime. "Yet was there a sort of indefinite, halfattained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant."

Whatever it meant, it is safe to say that Turner did not find his inspiration in Melville. The novel appeared the very year of the artist's death, in 1851. Yet his very first whaling scene, a small watercolor from around 1837, starts with literature. It looks more conscientious in its focus on human industry than those boggy, soggy, squitchy oils, but it illustrates a passage from Sir Walter Scott, in a novel from 1822. Turner intended several watercolors as the basis of engravings for Scott's collected works, but somehow they never made it in. One can see the four whaling pictures in series as a fiction, too, of a shipwreck.

Viewers often throw up their hands at the wreck of seas and skies, because he nurtured the confusion. The Met Breuer gives him a room to himself for its opening exhibition, much like his public exhibitions. That opening exhibition is "Unfinished," daring one to decide what he brought to completion. Part of the challenge is how long he kept working. Rather than abandoning his paintings half done, he is at his most obscure the more layered the surface, much like Rembrandt. Now the Met puts his surfaces to the test.

The focus exhibition does not display the paintings as Turner did, in pairs months apart. (He considered them ready for viewing, finished or not.) It makes a painting from its collection the star of the show, facing the entrance, with loans from the Tate on walls to the left and right. The entirety runs in likely chronological order by composition. It also runs by subject—and by that one portentous something. Just when you thought that he had captured the great white whale, things run aground.

Lost at sea

Make that an ordinary black sperm whale, and the first scene shows the proper business of hunting. According to the original catalog from 1845, it takes place in the sea off Japan. At its center, the crew has stepped off the sailing ship onto more open and more mobile whaling boats to go about their craft. The two men in the lead have the same heroic gesture. In the course of engagement, they will spear the whale from a distance to immobilize it, before they and others come in for the kill. The whale appears at right only as a smear of sea foam—and, less directly still, in the turmoil of sky and sea at left.

The second picture describes the kill. Here the whale rears up at left as a writhing black mass and a single spot of blood, while a sail has replaced it at right. In the process, the men have become smaller almost to the point of vanishing—and their heroism a thing of the past. Both paintings play against their three-part symmetry, and both have a crusty network of small strokes of oil, broken by a dark sliver of sea spray and cloudy sky. Melville's disciplined, active brush stands for the work of men. The remaining pictures show what they have achieved.

They present a back-and-forth between narrative and chaos, and neither has the last word. In the third, the whale's head has entered the ship's mast, its body in tow, while multiple whaling crews head for shore. J. M. W. Turner's Peace—Burial at Sea (Tate, Turner Bequest, 1842)In the fourth, a prow faces front, as if unable to move, while the masts have darkened into browns and blue. At right, the sea has congealed into frozen ice, even as whale blubber boils in a fiery sky. The men must extricate themselves, and there is no telling whether they will succeed. Logs in the water could announce a berthing or the wreck.

The show adds two more watercolors, their dark mass standing for a beached whale. It also includes an engraving after Turner that domesticates his wildness, but it could belong to another world. No question, though, that he gets the last word. Even Melville seems largely a distraction, an attempt to shift the ground from England to America, like the Met itself. It helps tell a story, but whose? Is it the writer's, the artist's, a nation's, or that of humankind lost at sea?

One can see a shift in style with each painting, a shift toward greater activity, more color, and smaller masses. Where the first pair has its crusty brushwork, the second has an uncanny brightness and an oily thickness. Is it coincidence that it shows the harnessing of whale oil and the terror of icy seas—in that lifelong dialogue of fire and ice? Does it matter that the paintings move from heroism to disaster, by way of ordinary commerce? Do they show a back and forth between humanity and terror, art and literature, or art and life? Will the men and the whale ever reach shore?

The thick surfaces have their drawbacks. They are not Turner at his most naturalistic, but also not at his most cataclysmic. Their modest colors are not an obvious metaphor for the sublime or the apocalypse. He may have painted by oil lamps, but he probably never saw a whale. "But stop," Melville adds at last, "does it not bear a faint resemblance to . . . the great leviathan himself?" Aye, very like a whale.

Any port in a storm

"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. 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? J. M. W. Turner's Cologne: The Arrival of a Packet-Boat: Evening (Frick Collection, c. 1826)Is he out to blind the viewer or to keep up with the news? Surely both at once, just as his whaling pictures treat the sea trade as the scene of an apocalypse. 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.

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Turner's whaling pictures ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through August 7, 2016, his port views at The Frick Collection through May 14, 2017. A related review looks at a 2008 J. M. W. Turner retrospective.


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