Take a guess as to when this watercolor was created. Take a guess as to its style. The time-frame could very easily be contemporary, and stylistically it could be called anything from Impressionistic to Abstract Expressionist or beyond. But Fire at the Tower of London is actually 174 years old, and it preceded Impressionism by several decades.
The painter was the British artist best known for his amazing landscapes, J.M.W Turner (1775-1851), and he was radically ahead of his time. His life and work are now on view in director Mike Leigh’s critically acclaimed biopic, Mr. Turner, nominated for four Oscars in the categories of cinematography, production and costume design, and original score.
Let not the rather handsome self-portrait of Turner (shown left) influence you if you intend to see the film, in which case you’ll be in for a shock. I certainly was. Timothy Spall, in a remarkable performance that itself deserved an Academy Award nomination (he won the actor’s prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year) portrays the artist as practically porcine, borderline swinish in his physical characteristics and habits. You really have to suspend disbelief to see him as the creator of some of the most sublime masterworks in art history.
The film critic Kenneth Turan put it best when he recently described this depiction of Turner as “an elemental man with an ethereal talent.” It’s that dichotomy that makes this painstakingly crafted period piece more interesting than most. But if I had to express one disappointment after seeing the film, it would be the relative lack of insight I came away with as far as the artistic motivation — ethos, if you will — that drove Turner, especially in his explorations of color and light. One of his most striking quotes, for example, was “Light is therefore colour.” Sounds simple enough. But at its heart lies a complex puzzle that many an artist has wrestled with throughout the centuries.
The paintings shown here are ones I particularly admire, because they illustrate the last years of Turner’s artistic odyssey that culminated in the total annulment of the representational. “Indistinctness is my forte,” he said at the time, laying the groundwork for the revolutionary Impressionist movement that began with Claude Monet and company in 1874.
It is also said that Turner’s last words before he died were, “The sun is God.” Immerse yourself in his resplendent works and you can’t help but grasp glimpses of divinity.