Dallas, TX –
The painter J.M.W. Turner was like a character out of Dickens. The son of a barber and a mother who died in an asylum, Turner never learned Latin, never gained social poise. A successful though controverial artist in Victorian England, he was secretive and tight-mouthed, as hard-nosed as any Scrooge.
He was also a genius. The exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art, called simply J.M.W. Turner, provides abundant evidence of that genius in 136 watercolors and oil paintings, including some of Turner's masterpieces, some never shown before in America. It is, as they say, a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition.
Turner remains popular as an artist of picturesque landscapes and as a proto-Impressionist, a painter of swirls and colors. There are plenty of canvases like that here - gorgeous, sleepy hillsides or hazy canals in Venice.
But the scale of this show is monumental. It manages to put Turner back into his historical period and show him towering above it. The exhibition contains Turner's first oil painting and his largest oil painting - a whopper that takes up an entire gallery wall. The show has both of Turner's depictions of the burning of Parliament in 1834. It has epic treatments of sea battles and shipwrecks. Turner was haunted by certain scenes, coming back to them repeatedly. We see very different views of Norham Castle, as Turner moves beyond realism into the loose, splashy style of his mature years. The watercolor by the young artist is hushed and detailed. The later oil painting has an explosive dazzle and shimmer, as if the world were slowly taking shape from the sun rising through the mist. The first painting is a portrait; the second is a vision.
Claude Lorraine is an earlier French master whom Turner admired. He was said to be the first European artist to paint the sun directly into one of his landscapes. It was a daring feat to pull off convincingly. Turner topped him by owning the sun, making it his personal symbol. His work is so bright, you'll need sunglasses. Light is the great energy source in Turner's paintings. Creative and destructive, it burnishes the world in gold but also incinerates it into black ash. As you go through the exhibition, follow the sun as it changes and grows, gleams and burns and fades.
Like the sun's rise and fall, the DMA's show follows an arc, with the last paintings steeped in death, deluge and despair. In all of Turner's work, even his sweetest landscapes, we humans are little creatures dwarfed by titanic forces. By the end, we're not even that, we are remnants, charred and drowned. From the field of corpses at the Battle of Waterloo to the somber sea burial of a fellow painter, Turner's tragic vision is what separates him from many of the impressionists who followed. Turner is bigger than summer picnics or sailboats on a river, bigger than theories of light and color. Turner didn't capture just the sun; he stared into the darkness as well.
Forget King Tut, the much ballyhooed, commercial show coming this October. Turner is the great achievement at the Dallas Museum of Art this year. Turner is the one to see.
Jerome Weeks is KERA's critic-at-large and writes about books for artsjournal.com. You can see some of Turner's paintings and read more about the exhibit in our arts and culture blog at kera.org
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