Norham Castle, Sunrise, about 1845, Joseph Mallord William Turner. Oil on canvas, 35 3/4 x 48 in. Tate: Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856. Photo © Tate, London 2014
“I think Turner would have loved this place,” said Tate Britain curator Amy Concannon. She had brought one of the shipments of Turner’s works for the exhibition J. M. W. Turner: Painting Set Free, now at the Getty Museum and traveling to the de Young in June. I heartily agreed. We talked a bit about what this great painter of nature would have loved about Los Angeles.
Over half of Turner’s painted oeuvre consists of marine subjects. He was obsessed with the elemental power of seas and oceans, the effects of the combination of water and light in Venice (Italy), and he frequently enjoyed fishing trips. If he lived today, would he be found watching shipping in the port of Los Angeles, or fishing from one of the local piers? Perhaps he would live in Santa Monica, along with so many other British expats.
Mountains and Canyons
Particularly in later years, Turner adored the drama of Swiss and German alpine scenery and the way the scale dwarfed human activity. He would have loved local places such as Topanga Canyon or Solstice Canyon and the Santa Monica Mountains, even more the awesome majesty of further-afield sights such as Yosemite. Toward the end of his life he expressed a desire to see Niagara Falls, but he never made it there.
Turner would have enjoyed sketching the vistas from places such as, well, um, the Getty. He sketched in pencil and watercolor from morning to night and would particularly have relished the sunrises and sunsets enjoyed here every day. But he might have preferred more clouds.
Ah, the sun. “The sun is God,” Turner once said, and it features prominently in many of his later works. He was a noted devotee of sun-staring (sun-gazing), which involves staring with the naked eye directly at the sun. This now-discredited practice was reputed to relax the eyes, but for Turner it resulted in a glassblower’s cataract. Recently it has been noted that this would have limited his perception of the color yellow, thus perhaps causing an overuse of that color in his later work (although there are certainly examples that betray no such trait). He was mockingly called the “Yellow Dwarf” and the Almanack of the Month offered a scathing caricature.
Any scenery that showed its dominance over man appealed to Turner. No doubt the scale and the bleak landscape of the desert, as well as the clarity of desert light, would have captivated our artist. Yet in his strictly European sketching trips, Turner was less adventurous than some contemporaries who ventured to the Holy Land and Africa, for example.
As a colleague says, “Here in Southern California, we don’t have weather, we have natural disasters.” Mr. Turner was certainly intrigued by the sheer power of rockslides, storms, and the like, often capturing the terrifying forces of nature in sketches and pushing the boundaries of their representation in his paintings.
Here in Los Angeles we live on the edge, and that’s exactly how the risk-taking Turner would have liked it.