17 January 2023

Turner, a king in the realm of wise children

I was sent this small Turner watercolour recently by a mysterious gentleman, a certain Peter Shearer from Cincinnati who collects art and loves it too, apparently. We have mutual friends over there and I believe that he has also visited this small blog space so he obviously knew what interested me, but also  himself too. In any event I thank him for this small gift.

This unpretentious little oeuvre, lacking in any visual presumption is just so perfect and beguiling that I could weep with envy. Its innocence speaks of a rare and simple vision, one which a very insightful young child of rare sensibility might be able to pull off but only on a very lucky and insightful afternoon. 

There is at certain times, that awkward honesty in Turner's voluminous record-keeping of the sea and sky that reveals such playful abstraction that one could possibly (if they knew little or nothing about Art) imagine it done by a child indeed. But this of course, would be a fairly cheap value judgement by smug, smart-alecks who would be ruled by the left side of their brains only, for this is a masterpiece of invention.  

The perfect brilliance of this tiny and unobtrusive little souvenir is beyond description. This child-like innocence belies a profound vision, one that was cultivated by a lifetime of looking at Nature, but also by an enormous talent buried deeply within the structure of its four corners and behind its quiet and simple design. 

But hidden within this simplicity is a foreground, middle ground, and a background, which all together seem to come racing up to the viewer all at once on one plane, like the visual world does in fact. In Painting, this is the art of greatness for it has to be learned through practice but also a generously  extensive understanding of Art History itself. 

It's because normally, our eyes don't allow this to happen due to our incapacity to focus on all planes all at once, and at the same time. It is therefore left to the artist (and innocent eye of a gifted child) to reconfigure that physical impossibility for us viewers. And this sounds way more complicated than I am making it out to be. But put simply: our eyes only reveal to us, at nanoseconds at a time, the entire picture in front of us when we look out at the world at each moment. Normally, we cannot, without practice, see a landscape as painters have learned to make them because they were re-created using a kind of abstraction built by planes that move forward and backward on the two dimensional surface. The painter needs to fashion a foreground, middle ground, and background which are not always apparent to us, because our eyes do not naturally take them in as one. It is why some painters will squint their eyes whilst looking at a landscape in order to see it as one entire thing. But to paint it as one entire thing is an abstract process.

A viewer doesn't realise this because they don't think about it, it's taken for granted. But the painter (and gifted child) seem to understand this, though in different ways, because they know they need to reconfigure a visible world through a sort of connivance of talent and gumption to reconstruct the logic of a landscape in a painted image. For the gifted and clairvoyant child, and a few lucky painters (the visionaries), it's innate, but for most painters it must be learned. I had to learn it for instance, it didn't come naturally to me.

Put another way; the 'Academic Painter', of which there are many prestigious adherents, are trained to paint Nature (landscapes and models) as a compilation of separate parts, attaching them through painting technique alone. But unlike them, the visionary sees everything as an organic whole image all at once in their mind. 

In the Turner above is a great example of seeing the 'motif' of the picture as a unified visual idea. And because an academic painter sees only a picture as pieces to be attached to one another, he/she consequently attempts to tie them all together a bit like a patchwork quilt. But being a visionary, this is not how Turner saw either the motif or the picture, for he saw everything as a whole and he made the necessary sacrifices to reconfigure that whole into the form of a painting. 

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