by Sam Juliano
The most celebrated cultural “event” in New York City over the summer was unquestionably the first-ever public display of the works of Britain’s greatest painter and one of the world’s most revered landscape artists, J.M.W. Turner at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Showcasing 150 paintings and watercolors, the exhibition was that rarest of opportunities to get the full measure of the man, who lived from 1775-1851, first in Covent Garden and then in Brentwood until his acceptance to the Royal Academy of Art. For those with stamina and patience (the hall was a veritable mob scene on the afternoon of Sunday, September, 21st, the last day of the retrospective) one was rewarded with a thrilling cascade of evanescent images, which essayed subjects from the Old Testament and classical myths to post-Napoleonic politics, the whaling industry and the common people living near the sea trying to survive. Certainly the contemporary viewer is challenged by such anachronistic imagery, but in a series of large canvas images, including the huge wall mural of a colonial ship that adorned the multi-roomed display, you can’t help but be awestruck by the sheer scope and veracity of the presentation.
As throngs of onlookers crowded the hallowed halls of the second floor ‘featured exhibition’ trying to get a final look at the storms at sea, the ravishing sunsets and the indelible canvases of Venice, (which were rendered in oils and watercolors, the latter form one Turner mastered near the end of his career) one had to be patient to negotiate unobstructed eyelines to the works. A number of the large-canvas works hit their mark, leaving unforgettable marks in your consciousness, including “The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16th October 1834, an oil painting that evinces an extraordinary mastery of color and light, particularly the burnt oranges and the blending of aquatic blues and violet purples. One might conclude that the painting reduces conventional (and recognizable) images to elemental forms.
Both “The Battle of Trafalger” and “Keelman Heaving in Coals by Moonlight” are paintings of incredible motion, in both instances envisioning war at sea, with the former utilizing a turbulent visual design to amplify the burning and destruction of the fleet.
“Venice from the Porch of Madonna della Salute,” a magnificent canvas set in Venice with gondolas and ancient structures in a triumph of light and sunny color, and proof that his years in Italy gave Turner a respite from the darker themes he immersed himself in up north. “Northern Castle, Sunrise” had somewhat foreshadowed Turner’s abilities in this vein, and in fact caused some of his critics to have an infatuation with the color yellow, a fact that may be valid, but hardly one to disparage this glorious work for.
I found it curious to learn that John Updike, reviewing the exhibition for the New York Review of Books, reported noticing visitors “staggering from the final chamber to the gift shop’s welcoming arms as if in a tussle in a cave.” Other at critics thought the exhibit “exhausting” and a few others were unmoved. However, the majority of scribes seemed very moved and impressed by the event, and as only an occasional attendee of art retrospectives I admit I was awestruck and nearly moved to tears by these works, which words can not satisfactorily describe. Suffice to say it is an experience that will stay with you for the rest of your life, and one that is admittedly a special privilege for those who live in the metropolitan area.
With the currently-running exhibit of Van Gogh’s “night paintings” at MOMA, late 2008 is proving to be a time for celebration in the Big Apple for art and culture lovers.
Note: Lucille and the kids enjoyed the Turner exhibit immensely in the big stone mega-building on 82nd Street and Museum’s Row on Sunday, the 21st of September, beginning at around 2:00 P.M. I was reminded about the exhibition’s final day by Tony Lucibello, who also was there with his wife Sara, but sadly we were unable to meet up with due to the fact that we are without cell phones at present. I was thrilled that the kids had fun and actually enjoyed the presentation. For souvenirs, we picked up a terrific DVD of Turner’s paintings and a 2009 calendar with enlarged replications of some of the masterworks that were on display.