Art

Turner: The landscaper of art genres

by Matthew Larking

Contributing Writer

J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) remains among the most adored of British landscapists. His natural draftsman talent, in union with the hard work ethic of his time led to recognition and formal training at the Royal Academy of Arts, where he was elected to become one of the institution’s esteemed Academicians in 1802. That year, Turner also embarked on the first of his many sketching tours of Europe, the results of which are, along with other works, presently on show at The Museum of Kyoto.

This is the second stop of four for “Turner and the Poetics of Landscape,” which moves to Tokyo on April 24 after its Kyoto run. The focus is on the so-called British specialism of Turner’s watercolors, his engravings and a smaller number of oils.

Landscape remained subordinate as a genre during Turner’s youth, ranking below historical paintings, which chronicled events encapsulating human drama, myth and religion. But it was becoming popular, with painters such as Claude Lorrain (c. 1600-1682) and Richard Wilson (1714-1782) helping establish a taste for landscapes in league with other factors.

By the 18th century, topographical documentation was culturally and scientifically in vogue, and dramatic and diverse depictions of nature were a stimulus to travel abroad. Painting and engraving, later photography, were marshaled to buoy a fledgling tourism industry. Turner brought the painted landscape into the regard it is held in today partly by disseminating it via his popular engraved illustrations for armchair- and prospective travelers. He also briefly raised the status of watercolors close to the then-conventional regard for oil painting.

Turner worked in both picturesque and sublime styles (the major period landscape modes), though the prevailing public preference during his early career was for the former. Rapid industrialization and commercial prosperity had led to a taste for the nostalgic rural and pre-industrial life. Sentimentalized nature, enlivened by the microcosms of human affairs and events and studded with architectural structures or grand English country houses, such as that of “Caley Hall, Yorkshire with Stag Hunters Returning Home” (c. 1818), were in demand.

But the sublime was also a Turner forte. Awe-inspiring alpine scenery was part of the grandeur of romanticism, though prior to Turner these were less celebrated in painting than perceived as impenetrable obstacles inhibiting travel. Turner’s “The Passage of Mount St. Gothard” (exhibited 1804) combined sheer precipices with climactic weather, inspiring a sense of physical danger, an expression perhaps even more clearly embodied in his tempestuous seascapes, such as “Fishermen Upon a Lee-Shore, in Squally Weather” (exhibited 1802). The decay of civilization and empire was another frequent Turner theme. “Stonehenge, Wiltshire” (c. 1827) portrays a shepherd cowering from flashes of lightning above the famous ruins. Dramatic meteorology reminded viewers how the angry gods of old could determine mankind’s fate.

Without direct successors, Turner’s legacy has led to erroneous ascriptions of his position as a forerunner of modernism, anticipating impressionism and even abstraction owing to suggestive unfinished oil sketches that were not exhibited before his death. Turner, however, propagated and augmented existing orders of art. While more visionary and imaginative than those before him, he was a master of pre-existing emotive and atmospheric landscapes and of the romanticist’s notion of “painting as poetry.”

“Turner and the Poetics of Landscape” at The Museum of Kyoto runs until April. 15; ¥1,500. For more information, visit www.bunpaku.or.jp/en.