Before I saw Turner at theTate Britain, I thought of him as an artist preoccupied with the massive. I knew him for his grandiose battle scenes, and as my flatmate put it, his resolutely ‘smeary’ landscapes. What ended up sticking with me from the exhibition was the opposite, was the minutiae. I found myself lingering on the meticulously detailed presentations of the banal. It was the longest I have ever spent viewing the exhibition of a single artist.
In her amazing essay “In Free Fall”, Hito Steyerl discusses Turner’s necessary role in challenging linear time, and the break he represents in “calculable, predictable perspective”(1). Turner’s horizon is radically “tilted, curved, and troubled”. Nowhere can this be seen better than in A Disaster at Sea, on show at the Tate Britain now. In the gargantuan oil painting, a mound of pale, swollen bodies and nauseatingly thick yellow drips of paint create pure cacophony. I find it brilliant to the point of being sickening, an ode to relentless motion.
Turner does best when he unsettles, when he rips open the bucolic and leaves it gaping.
What is even more spectacular is that he doesn’t feel the need to allude to an expected mysticism to express the profound violence found in upended perspective. Perhaps this is partly due to the early 1800s being comparatively unreligious in Britain (2) , causing many divine symbols to lose their panache. Instead, Turner reinvigorates nature, and within it he finds a plethora of references to glorify and deconstruct. John Berger describes Turner’s admiration for Rembrandt, “who threw a mysterious doubt over the meanest piece of common.”(3)
I have chosen to compile only the details of his paintings because I see them as little islands of respite amidst compositions of tumult which “preclude the spectator”(4) . Looking at the whole paintings, we lose our footing, but in the details we are able to recognise ourselves again. In that dualistic enterprise a beauty emerges, and it rides upon the staggering resilience of the everyday in the face of callous violence and indifferent destruction.
What follows is a curated archive of smattered details which have a stupefying kind of gleam to them. I want to publish this document so that people who are unable to visit the show may also see this more intimate facet of his work.
Steyerl, Hito. The Wretched of the Screen. Sternberg Press, 2013. p. 18
Berger, John. Steps towards a Small Theory of the Visible. PENGUIN Books, 2020.
Berger, John. p. 28
Berger, John. p. 32
All photos taken by Maria Dragoi at Tate Britain.