In 1966 the Museum of Modern Art in New York presented an exhibition of paintings by Joseph Mallord William Turner titled “Imagination and Reality.” He was the only 19th Century artist that they had so honored up to that time.
The catalogue essays began with this statement: “Self-evidently The Museum of Modern Art has always dedicated itself to the exhibition and general understanding of contemporary art, but from time to time it includes in its programme exceptional productions of other periods of art history in which the modern spirit happened to be fore-shadowed or by which modern artists have been influenced. We have no precedent for a one-man show of an artist who died more than a century ago.”1
We took a bus up from Baltimore just to see this exhibition, and were blown away both literally and figuratively. It was shocking how abstract and gestural and expressionistic these paintings were, as well as what a powerful degree of content they contained.
Storms and lights were flowing across and around these canvases. Crossing the divide. They had all the contemporary elements of New York School painting, but they were not in the least dated, in fact, they were extremely refreshing and contemporary.
Needless to say, many painters and poets have been influenced by this work over the years. Most recently Yusef Komunyakaa has taken up this subject in “Turner’s Great Tussle with Water” from his collection of The Emperor of Water Clocks. He starts with an early classical Turner painting, “The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire” and works his way through to later, more expressionistic works, just as Turner would have developed in style and confidence. And he leaves us with beautifully horrific poetic imagery.
TURNER’S GREAT TUSSLE WITH WATER
“As you can see, he first mastered light
& shadow, faces moving between grass
& stone, the beasts wading to the ark,
& then The Decline of the Carthaginian
Empire, before capturing volcanic reds,
but one day while walking in windy rain
on the Thames he felt he was descending
a hemp ladder into the galley of a ship,
down in the swollen belly of the beast
with a curse, hook, & bailing bucket,
into whimper & howl, into piss & shit.”
“He saw winds hurl sail & mast pole
as the crewmen wrestled slaves dead
& half-dead into a darkened whirlpool.
There it was, groaning. Then the water
was stabbed & brushed till voluminous,
& the bloody sharks were on their way.
But you’re right, yes, there’s still light
crossing the divide, seething around
corners of the thick golden frame.”2
As a footnote to this work, Turner would often pair a poem with one of his paintings. As so many of his paintings had an historic story to tell, these pieces complimented and played off of each other. This was especially true of the painting “The Slave Ship.” An extract from one of Turner’s unfinished poems was indeed placed next to the painting when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1840.
Fallacies of Hope
“Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;
Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds
Declare the Typhon’s coming.
Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard
The dead and dying – ne’er heed their chains
Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope!
Where is thy market now?”3
1Gowing, Lawrence; Turner: Imagination and Reality; The Museum of Modern Art; New York, New York; 1966; p. 5.
2Komunyakaa, Yusef; The Emperor of Water Clocks; Farrar Straus Giroux; New York, New York; 2015; p. 17.
3For the full text of Turner’s verse see A. J. Finberg, “The Life of J.M.W. Turner,” R.A., 2nd ed., 1961, p. 474.