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Force of nature

Turner: A Life, James Hamilton, Random House: 496 pp., $35

August 03, 2003|Michael Bracewell | Michael Bracewell is a critic whose recent works include "England Is Mine: Pop Life in Albion From Wilde to Goldie" and "When Surface Was Depth."

AS we look to artists to be seers and saviors, bringing back reports from the frontiers of experience, we tend to thrive on the mythologies that are created around them, or, more often than not, that they create around themselves. And as the best of art conveys not simply a heightened emotional state but a wholly new way of experiencing those emotions, we maybe need to acknowledge our artist heroes as legendary pioneers -- clearing land against the odds with the keen, indefatigable edge of their extraordinary acuity. The life, we feel, must answer for the temper of the work.

As such, the visual arts present a wealth of biographical mythology, from, for instance, Vincent Van Gogh's madness to Jackson Pollock's alcoholism (two examples that have lent themselves so well to film, in Kirk Douglas' febrile portrayal of the former and, more recently, Ed Harris' astonishing performance as the latter). Both stories deal with newness -- how innovation tends to ride a perilous back curve, in terms of its reception, between critical indifference and cultural enshrinement. And both stories raise the question of whether artists can ever think in terms of success. Are their acts of translation ever complete? Or would this, as Graham Greene once wrote, be rather like a priest trying to think in terms of success?

If Pollock and Van Gogh represent evolutionary stages in the development of not just modern art but the modern artist as a mythologized cultural archetype, then both must take their place as the descendants of Joseph Mallord William Turner, the English painter of light and landscape who seems to inaugurate modern art in much the same way that Gustave Flaubert might be argued to originate the modern novel. Between 1790 and 1840, Turner advanced the entire potential of art -- how art might be made and what art might achieve -- and his standing in this regard is every bit as cataclysmic as his most dramatic paintings. The translation into art of his deeply felt experience appears seamless and complete; his brilliance comes across as literally elemental, as though his skills as an artist are as much a monolithic force of nature as the weather and the landscape they so often depicted.

As described by James Hamilton's richly detailed biography, Turner's life combined the canny entrepreneurial spirit of any businessperson promoting a brand within a cut-throat market and a profound engagement with the sheer physical labor of his craft. With this in mind, Hamilton's opening quotation from Turner, "The only secret I have got is damned hard work," is in some ways the ultimate refinement of his subject's story -- like Warhol's pronouncement that all there is to know about him can be found on the surface of his paintings.

Turner's modernity as an artist -- he would dress the part, for instance, to impress his patrons and opened his own gallery as soon as he could afford to do so -- can be seen to coincide with the beginnings of what we might recognize as contemporary urban culture. Born in Covent Garden, London, in 1775, Turner grew up with a city that was beginning to accelerate; buildings and professions, institutions and intrigues were caught up in a collective process of expansion at a time when scientific, intellectual and constitutional debate were also pursuing new ideas. Art, however, remained a matter of training and patronage, with an accepted career structure based on the Royal Academy, its schools, exhibitions and distinguished members.

Hamilton tracks the speed with which Turner grew from making drawings in his father's barbershop (always a useful venue for gossip and contacts) to achieving a firm reputation as a young artist of extraordinary promise. The single-mindedness with which Turner pursued his career -- making very good money from commissioned work by the time he was in his early 20s -- keeps pace with the development of his genius, and Hamilton possesses a remarkable ability to identify those works or occasions which seem to define this quality of human capability that is so resistant to description or analysis. Hamilton allows genius to describe itself through implication, as in this passage relating to Turner's teenage years:

"Sitting at the top of Cook's Folly, aged sixteen, Turner was looking out at the most dramatic view he had yet experienced. Though Brentford may have been a kind of paradise and the sea in the bay at Margate might have been whipped up into good, fulsome storms while he was there, only the Avon Gorge in the September light gave him height, depth, distance, and crystal clarity all at once. He had coloured miscellaneous engravings of picturesque views in an antiquarian volume while he was living at Brentford, but his 1791 Bristol drawings were his first expression of the experience from a high point of the motion of the engine of the air."

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