How JMW Turner Influenced Abstract Art
Mar 4, 2020
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) was considered one of the most famous painters in Europe when he died. Introspective and experimental, he pushed himself far beyond his contemporaries. Contemplating his influence on Modernist abstract art is therefore fascinating ground. This year, a major Turner retrospective at the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris will offer audiences a unique opportunity to dive deep into this conversation, as a selection of rarely exhibited, experimental Turner watercolors from the Tate Modern collection will be exhibited alongside several of his more well-known, finished watercolors and oil paintings. These experimental works were part of the personal collection Turner displayed in his home and studio; he never exhibited them in public while he was alive. They are, by and large, what we would now refer to as abstracted, or at least more abstract than his private commissions or publicly exhibited works. It is debatable, however, if that was his intent when he made these works. Were they actually unfinished works to which Turner had intended to one day add more detail? Were they formal studies used to guide his own technical development? Or are they in fact evidence that long before the advent of pure abstraction in Western art, Turner considered formal aesthetic elements like color and light worthy of being subject matter in and of themselves? Turner once rebuffed a critic who had commented dismissively about some foggy aspect of one of his paintings with the quip, “Indistinctness is my forte.” The amorphous, sometimes mystical qualities of his experimental, private watercolors certainly demonstrate the truth of that quote. They also offer us an opportunity to release Turner from the burden of being seen as a progenitor of Modernist abstraction, and to place him instead where I believe he belongs: in a category all his own
Suggestion vs. Description
One of the more commonly made connections between Turner and the development of Modernist abstraction is the apparent similarity between his work and that of Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970). Supposedly, after seeing a Turner retrospective at MoMA in 1966, Rothko remarked, “This man Turner, he learned a lot from me.” Considering he was born a half century after Turner died, Rothko was obviously joking. But there was also some shrewd art world criticism behind this absurdist remark. Rothko was getting out in front of the equally silly suggestion that he knew would soon follow from the mouths of critics: that he, Rothko, was the one who had been influenced by Turner. Rothko was pointing out how handy, and yet how ridiculous it is, to spot apparent similarities between the work of two painters and thus assume one was influenced by the other.
Consider “Ehrenbreitstein with a Rainbow” (1840), one of the Turner paintings included in the Musée Jacquemart-André exhibition. It shows a foggy impression of a double rainbow extending across a vista of a fortress atop a mountain next to the sea. The colors, forms and compositional qualities of this painting are undeniably similar to the famous Helen Frankenthaler painting, “Mountains and Sea” (1952). Does that mean Frankenthaler (1928 – 2011) was influenced by Turner? Unlikely. Both paintings were, however, inspired by similar perceptions of colors and light at a similar location. Frankenthaler may never have seen this Turner painting, just like Rothko may never have thought about Turner before seeing his work at MoMA. That does not mean these three artists share nothing in common. Turner, Rothko and Frankenthaler each prioritized suggestion over description. They were also each interested in the underlying ideas of transcendentalism—the secular appreciation of the spiritual connections that can arise between self-reliant individuals and nature. All three being introspective, experimental, individualistic painters cut from the same philosophical cloth, is it any wonder they arrived at some of the same visual ideas?
Welcome to the Neighborhood
Art movements are like neighborhoods: conglomerations of similar looking stuff, easily describable to buyers, and pleasant enough as long as you do not look too deeply at what is going on beneath the surface. Moving Turner into the Modernism neighborhood, or the abstraction neighborhood, might make more viewers feel like they belong, but is that really where he belongs? Or were Turner and the true Modernist abstract pioneers simply interested in some of the same things? When Turner painted a boat on the water, or folks playing with their dogs on the beach, or birds flying across a rainbow, he seems to have been less interested in the specific objects he painted, and more interested in the emotional connection viewers would make when seeing this painting and remembering a time they had encountered such experiences themselves. His cloudier works, such as his personal watercolors, focus far less on narrative, and far more on visual effects and their emotional counterparts. They are not just pictures of landscapes, they are also pictures of moods. Does that make Turner a Proto-Impressionist, a Proto-Modernist, or a Proto-Abstractionist?
I think finding Impressionism, Modernism or pure abstraction in Turner is sort of like finding a new use for an existing drug. Like, if aspirin can cure headaches and also prevent heart attacks, why not use it for both? Turner was clearly thinking about some of the same ideas as Monet, Kandinsky, Rothko and Frankenthaler, but unlike those artists Turner did not exactly announce his intent to revolutionize Western art, so we should not assign that intention to his work. But if his work can tell us something about his own time while also telling us something about the times of those other artists, and our own time, why not use it for all of that? The private, experimental paintings being shown at the Musée Jacquemart-André this year are timeless. They expand the legacy of an artist who cared mostly about mastering his own abilities so he could become better at being himself. If contemporary abstract artists can find inspiration in those fundamental principles, the most exciting thing about Turner will not be speculating about what influence he had on abstraction in the past—it will be to witness the influence his work has on its future.
Featured image: J. M. W. Turner - Venice: San Giorgio Maggiore – Early Morning, 1819, Watercolour on paper, 22,3 x 28,7 cm. Tate, Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856, Photo © Tate
All images used for illustrative purposes only
By Phillip Barcio