Sunday, February 19, 2017

Turner’s Modern and Ancient Ports: Passages through Time

“Turner’s Modern and Ancient Ports: Passages Through Time” is an exhibition coming to The Frick Collection, New York on February 23 and remaining until May 14.  J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) has always been a difficult artist for me.  I admit that this may have to do with the fact that I am a Francophile and not an Anglophile.

Years ago my wife was writing articles for GQ Magazine and did one on the British architect Sir James Frazer Stirling (1926 –1992).  So we went to the Clore Galleries that Stirling had completed in 1987 for the Tate Britain to house their amazing collection of Turners.  I must say seeing them all together in a single room with their shimmering light was quite exciting.

Though Turner’s “avant la lettre” impressionistic style may cover up the fact nicely, he probably left more unfinished paintings than any other well-known artist.  A little known reason is that he liked to finish his paintings while they were on exhibition, finding that they sold better that way.

The Frick is not prone to doing large-scale paintings exhibitions and this is clearly an exception that proves the rule.  In all there are over thirty paintings and watercolors, but, as is usual, at the Frick, the show is tightly focused, in this case the subject of ports,  and Frick holdings remain front and center.  The show is created organized around three paintings: the Frick’s own two large-scale works of the harbors of Dieppe and Cologne, painted in the mid 1820’s together with an unfinished work from the Tate of the Harbor of Brest in Brittany.

"Harbor of Dieppe"
"Harbor of Brest"

One of the related works lent by the Tate collection to this exhibition is a striking watercolor, called “Sheilds, on the River Tyne, for the Rivers of England, 1823” part of a series completed in 1824.  The picture was accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest in 1856.  Turner originally wished the paintings left behind to go to the National Gallery in London so they could hang with the Old Masters and in particular the Claudes (Claude Lorrain (1604/5?–1682). Many were later transferred to the Tate.

Something pointed out in the Frick’s press material that I had never thought about was the fact that travel restrictions between England and France had been in effect since 1797 and were finally lifted in 1815 after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo.   At that point ports used for the Navy and the defense of Britain were turned into commercial hubs and seaside resorts.  Turner’s travels back and forth from England to France afforded him the opportunity to pass through and paint the many ports he would have visited.  Today with the Chunnel connecting England with the Continent we never see the water since we are beneath it!

It is hard for Americans to understand with our large country where going from state to state can be a long distance achievement, but in Continental Europe I have been in parts of four  countries in the same day.  It is not difficult to understand that on Turner’s travels he also visited parts of Germany such as Cologne and the Rhineland.  So I will end with a photo of the third monumental picture that the exhibition is based on, the Harbor of Cologne from the Frick.

A catalog accompanies the exhibition with entries from the curators of the show, Susan Grace Galassi, Senior Curator at the Frick and Ian Warrel, independent curator and Turner specialist who is currently the  Anne L. Poulet Curatorial Fellow.  There are a number of additional essays by illustrious scholars exploring the subject of Turner’s interpretations of ports he knew or imagined.

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