Magazine article Artforum International

Memo from Turner; Jonathan Crary on J. M. W. Turner

Magazine article Artforum International

Memo from Turner; Jonathan Crary on J. M. W. Turner

Article excerpt

IN RECENT DECADES, the occasion of a major Turner exhibition has invariably elicited outpourings of admiring, even marveling commentary on the artist's work, and the response to the current traveling retrospective--soon to open at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York--has thus far proved no exception.* But beyond the consensus that Turner must be ranked among the greats of post-Renaissance European art (regardless of what criteria such an estimation might be based on), no one seems to know quite what to do with his immense, intractable body of work, so seemingly incommensurable with the production of any other artist. The high visibility of the art and the mountains of research and writing on it notwithstanding, Turner and his pictures remain cordoned off in a strange critical and historiographical vacuum. It is difficult, if not impossible, to think of another artist of his stature who has been so consistently excluded from a meaningful role within the most dominant and influential accounts of visual modernism. Even Goya has been more convincingly woven into the various stories that art history tells. Of course, it has been repeatedly claimed that Turner has some vaguely defined relation to French Impressionism, to late Monet and Whistler, to Abstract Expressionism. But in spite of these alleged connections--which are, in any case, largely superficial when not altogether wrongheaded--Turner has never featured in the game of theorizing nineteenth-century art, a game even now still played mostly with the same short deck: Courbet, Manet, Cezanne, and a few others. It's not a matter of there being some untold master narrative of modern art that must displace existing ones; rather, a history with Turner foregrounded is one of the necessary stories that has yet to be voiced as part of a plurality of noncongruent and discontinuous histories that, together or separately, would be of explanatory value in the present. Unfortunately, the primary direction in Turner studies today reinforces his exteriority to larger critical and historical accounts of modernity by contextualizing him ever deeper within the archival minutiae of specifically English social history, pictorial practices, and contiguous events.

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Ironically, one of the initial reasons for Turner's marginalization was his very Englishness: That English art was intrinsically inferior to that of the Continent had long been axiomatic. An exemplary instance of this "national" devaluation of Turner may be found in L'Art moderne (1921), the penultimate volume of Elie Faure's canonical L'Histoire de l'art, in which Turner is deemed a noble failure, a victim of ambition overreaching ability. For Faure, Turner's work vividly demonstrated the inability of English art to convey the grandeur of ideas and exposed the absence of an innate plastic sense. Turner, like the rest of his compatriots, was congenitally incapable of grasping the essential forms and volumes that are the basis of great art (which, for Faure, included the works of Corot and Puvis).

A shift in the wind, of sorts, occurred in the wake of "Turner: Imagination and Reality," an exhibition organized by Lawrence Gowing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1966, which tendentiously presented roomfuls of paintings and watercolors mainly from the 1830s and '40s, the final decades of Turner's career. Through this weighted selection, a late Turner of pure visuality was fabricated, simultaneously enhancing the pedigree of Abstract Expressionism. Gowing's eloquent catalogue essay unintentionally facilitated the notion of a bifurcated career in which there was a breakout from what appeared to be the academic and literary preoccupations of the earlier work. Whether or not some hypothetical unity can be imposed on Turner's whole output, there is no question about the "literariness" of his oeuvre from the beginning to the very end. Though one of Turner's achievements is the spectacular derangement of the assumptions of ut pictura poesis, his work is nonetheless inseparable from a ruined, sedimented field of textuality, even when it seems remotest from language. …

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