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Sunday 29 April 2012

Enigmatic Art

A few months ago I wrote an item about the awesome apocalyptic paintings of John Martin (1789 -1854) that were on show at the time at the Tate Britain museum in London. I went there again last week, and I have to say the museum’s permanent collection is pretty dull in comparison with the Martin exhibit. At first glance the picture above looks like it might be one of Martin’s works, and it does depict the Biblical tale of The Destruction of Sodom which is exactly the sort of subject Martin specialized in. On closer inspection, however, it simply isn’t vivid enough -- the architecture and human figures are too vaguely drawn and hazy. Actually the picture is by Martin’s much more famous contemporary J.M.W. Turner (1775 -1851). If you think the picture looks too good to be a Turner, that’s because I “improved” it by enhancing the colours and contrast. The original, shown below, looks exactly like any other painting by Turner!
Another unusual picture I saw in the Tate is shown below. This dates from the late Elizabethan period -- to put it in context, that’s around the time Shakespeare’s plays were written. It depicts an “average man” praying to heaven as he is beset by woes from all sides. The picture is highly symbolic, with most of the figures dressed in a classically timeless style... except the woman on the left, who is wearing what must have been the high fashion of the time. For some reason this struck me as a distinctly kinky touch, especially as one of her three arrows is labelled “lechery”!

Since my own photograph didn’t come out very well, what is shown here is a detail from the Tate’s own image. You can see the full version here, together with a transcription of the various labels.


Kandinsky said...

I'm visiting the Tate Liverpool tomorrow morning and hope they've improved their collection from several months ago. They'd shifted away from 'hangable Art' towards abstract sculpture. No installations to speak of and, by consensus, a fairly boring visit. Your London venue is certainly the flagship.

Liverpool Tate had a Turner exhibition back around 2000 that showcased some of his sketches. I'm a passable sketcher and found them far more impressive than his mighty paintings.

As you point out, perhaps the works of Turner and Martin are best viewed on smaller scales? Although very different in style and period, Max Ernst went for huge canvases and yet his work too looks much better, in my opinion, when viewed in the pages of a large book.

In terms of 'Grand Worlds' and disturbing settings, Ernst and Martin have some unlikely parallels.

Andrew May said...

Thanks for some interesting points. I was disappointed that Tate Britain has gone the way of emphasizing modern works, and put most of their pre-1900 works in storage. There is a huge collection of Turners, but that's really it as far as the permanent display goes. Talking about huge canvases - a controversial figure in that respect was Roy Lichtenstein, who copied comic book panels on a huge scale. Many people think he drew his own compositions in a "comic book" style, but most of them really are copies of works by other people (for example Whaam! in the Tate Modern is a copy of a small panel by Russ Heath). Lichtenstein's only claim to creating artwork of his own was the sheer vastness of his canvases!

Kandinsky said...

Lichtenstein is good for T-shirts and the walls of student digs :)

Andrew May said...

Here is a brilliant webpage - I'd lost the link, but having found it again I'll put it here so I'll know where to find it in future: Deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein

brave said...

Turner is an odd duck. The subject of his paintings seem almost incidental to the resonance of the color. He is essentially an abstract painter. In Boston, there is a wonderful painting by him of a ship in a storm. From its title, you discover that it is supposed to be about a slave ship which cast off their their cargo (people) to save themselves - a very dramatic story. Under close inspection of the painting and you can see limbs with chains on in the rough seas, but they are drawn on the surface of the painting, almost as an afterthought. The viewer can sense that Turner felt little connection to the story and the drama and was responding viscerally to the color, light, and movement. @zim2918

Andrew May said...

Yes, Turner's work was very innovative in that sense, and looks more like the style of the late 19th century that the early 19th. Most of it is lost on me because I happen to like bright colours and clear, sharp lines -- but lots of people disagree and there's no doubt Turner was one of the all-time great British artists.

Andrew May said...

Talking about Turner's pictures not obviously reflecting their titles, and on quite a Fortean theme, here's one called Sunrise with Sea Monsters. You have to peer very closely to see the "monsters", and then they just look like big fish!

Kandinsky said...

@ Brave - I can understand where you're coming from with the 'abstract' comment. However, I think dark impressionism is closer to the style with, perhaps, some of expressionism of Munch. It's pretty hard to pin him down to a particular genre at all so Turneresque might have to do.

@ Andrew - The Tate was okay today and the others enjoyed it more than I did. Dadd's 'Fairy Feller's...' was my favourite although my tastes usually run to more adventurous paintings.

Without a program, it's impossible to recall the names of other pieces but I was impressed by a New York artist and couple of others in a Marianne Faithful corner.

Andrew May said...

The Fairy Feller is certainly an unusual painting and one that I've only seen in reproductions... Coming back to what you said earlier, I imagine that's a picture that works best at its original size.