Simon argues The Slave ship, one of 7 of his works causing a scandal at the 1840 Royal Academy exhibition, is typical of Turner's feeling from experience, as low-born Covent garden boy ... See full summary »

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Himself - Presenter
Mark Hyde ...
Older Turner
Joe Van Moyland ...
Younger Turner
Hollygale Millette ...
Life Model
Melanie Pappenheim ...
Woman Singing Song
...
Adam Cole ...
William Leighton Leitch
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Simon argues The Slave ship, one of 7 of his works causing a scandal at the 1840 Royal Academy exhibition, is typical of Turner's feeling from experience, as low-born Covent garden boy affected by family tragedy, for the common man, even prominent in his epic works, deliberately unpolished for grim effect. Despite his membership of the Royal Academy his appearance remained deliberately rough, his later life darkened by disease, loss of close one and a pain-killer which enhanced his morbid imagination. The sea, with uncut fluent lines typical for him, hence his glorious Venice period, is a common element of drama and emotions. His rendering of the Temeraire reflects the mixed public mood as industrialization takes the lead. He sided with the anti-slavery movement gaining momentum to fight slave-trade by others after the British Empire abandoned it, referring to the case of the Sun sixty years earlier, when the captain of the Sun, off Jamaica, decided to swindle the ship's insurance -... Written by KGF Vissers

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17 November 2006 (UK)  »

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Dark Pictures.
7 February 2011 | by (Deming, New Mexico, USA) – See all my reviews

If, like me, you only have a very general background in fine arts you'll probably still recognize Turner as the guy who painted a fuzzy picture of a sailing ship in a furious orange and black storm at sea. I never looked at it too closely and, not knowing any better, would have placed it many years later than when it was actually painted, about 1840.

In fact, Turner came from a middle-class family, brushed shoulders with poverty, grew up during a period of widespread British self satisfaction, and learned as a young man to paint postcard-pretty pictures of placid sunsets. They look like examples from the Hudson River school, as they should, since the Hudson River boys ripped off a lot of techniques and subjects from Turner.

But Turner wasn't content to float along on those romantic landscapes. According to Schama he turned to the darker aspects of contemporary civilization. "Hannibal Crossing the Alps" isn't a celebration of stamina and heroism. Hannibal is just a blurred silhouette atop a toy elephant in the background, half veiled by the effluvium. The attention is drawn to the death that surrounds his disorganized army. That is, I guess, Turner is questioning the virtue of empire-building in Britain in the first half of the 19th century, which must have gone against the grain -- somebody's grain, anyway.

And that fuzzy sailing ship being tossed around in a sea that seems to be erupting around it, bathed in a sickly orange light and about to be engulfed by a black wall of atmospheric turbulence? If you look at it closely -- if you find out that it's called "The Slave Ship", as I did during this episode -- you can see that it's a depiction of an historic event in which sick slaves were linked together and thrown overboard to collect insurance money. The rumpled surface of that sea has a lot of body parts sticking out of it. The sea around the bodies and the floating chains is made of fantastic man-eating fishes.

What a guy. His mother wound up in Bedlam, a raving lunatic. But he himself was admitted to the Royal Academy. And he could have sat back and continued to paint peaceful pictures of fishing ports. Brittania rules the waves, God's in his heaven, all's right with the world.

Instead he began painting nightmares. You -- or I, at any rate -- have never seen such ominous skies. I'm thinking of El Greco, but that's peanuts compared to Turner. Not only do you not want to be under those skies or in that landscape, you don't even want to be in such a malignant universe.

If I try -- out of almost complete ignorance -- to think of an approach to technique that's almost the opposite of Turner, it would be Andrew Wyeth. Wyeth reproduced accurately almost every blade of grass in a lawn. Turner spritzed paint all over the place, with one object blending into another, as if they were all fluids without any solids. And the particular objects in his work are anything but finely done. The humans, many of them corpses, are just blotches with eyes. You or I could do as well if nobody looked too closely at our work. But, Holy Mackerel, with one stroke of water color he could evoke the image of a distant fishing boat. No mast, no detail at all, just a muddy brown hull made of a single brush stroke. You know exactly what it is and can easily imagine what it smells like.

One thing that impressed me, after this horrific vision had come to an end, was Simon Schama's engagement in the subject, which ran rather beyond simple painting. He's a humanist and admires painters who deal with controversial social and political topics. I don't think he'd be interested in Copley or John Singer Sargent. He wrote this narration himself and the presentation leaves little doubt about it.


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