Monday, February 23, 2015
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
MASTERPIECES IN MY POCKET
Sometimes I have the most philistine notions, and one such came to me two or three months ago when I watched, and greatly admired and enjoyed, Mike Leigh’s excellent film Mr Turner.
This late in the day and after you, as an intelligent and literate reader, have probably either seen the film or read reviews of it, it is not my intention to write a review of Mr Turner here. Suffice it to say that it was a grand exercise in demythologising a very great artist, while at the same time making clear the reasons for his greatness. Mr Turner dramatized the last twenty or so years in the life of J.M.W.Turner (1775-1851). It seemed the intention of Mike Leigh to show us that even the most Romantic of English artists did not behave or live like the stereotypical image of a Romantic. Turner, as played by Timothy Spall, is not a lively and inspired spouter of dazzling aphorisms and profound wisdom on aesthetic matters. In conversation, this fat, commonplace-looking, portly and sunburnt man tends to bumble monosyllabically and his preferred form of communication is a grunt. His tastes are extremely simple and his relationships with the opposite sex entirely functional.
In a televised interview, Timothy Spall said his research told him that when Turner met the great, but more flamboyant, French artist Eugene Delacroix, Delacroix could not believe that the man he was meeting was the artist who had produced such vivid masterpieces as Rain, Steam and Speed, The Shipwreck of the Minotaur, and The Fighting Temeraire. Delacroix thought Turner seemed like a simple farmer.
This, I surmise, was exactly the film’s point. Turner put all of his genius into his work. He did not converse, theorise verbally or play a part. He was an artist who focused on the art itself and was not concerned with social niceties. It helped the film that Timothy Spall learnt how to paint before filming began so that he could wield a brush and palette convincingly while pretending to produce Turner’s great works. (I heard of one fine arts graduate who complained that, after all the film’s publicity about this, we saw very little of the actor actually painting. I disagree. We saw quite enough to be convinced that the actor really was working at art.)
Incidentally, I should also add that one sequence of malicious humour gave me particular pleasure. In his drawing room, the young art critic John Ruskin (played as a posturing and rather camp young man by Joshua McGuire) tries to curry favour with taciturn Turner by making a disparaging remark about the influential 17th century landscape painter Claude Lorrain. Turner cuts him off by simply grunting “Lorrain was a genius”, and that puts an end to that conversation. As it rightly should have.
By this stage, you are asking what all this has to do with the philistinism of which I accused myself at the beginning of this verbal ramble.
It has to do with another interesting theme in this film. The last couple of decades of Turner’s life coincided with the infancy of photography. Mr Turner has a sequence in which the artist visits, and has his photograph taken by, an early portrait photographer. As a painter, Turner is interested in, but clearly also a little afraid of, this new technology. He asks the photographer if he also does landscapes. The photographer says he does. But Turner is grateful when the photographer further says nobody can yet photograph the colours of the rainbow.
Seen in the context of the whole film, this is only part of a subtle dialectic on the relationship of painting and photography, for the fact is that Mr Turner, by its judicious use of the right film stock, by filters and [naturally] by much computer assistance, often produces stupendous landscapes and seascapes, standing in for those that inspired Turner. I do think there is one sequence where the film tries a little too hard in this respect and ends up looking artificial – it is the sequence where Turner and some associates row out to watch a new-fangled steamship dragging the old sailing warship Temeraire to the place where it will be broken up. The scene is too clearly “posed” after Turner’s painting on the subject. Taking this into account, however, much of the film, by its visual technique, is suggesting something very paradoxical for a film that is celebrating the genius of a painter. What we see on screen tells us that in some areas (portraiture and landscape painting, for example) photography has now overtaken painting.
So at last to my philistinism.
First, I have long believed that the invention of photography was the single most significant event in Western visual arts in the last two centuries. While counterfactual speculation is never verifiable, I believe the drive to “inwardness” and abstraction in Western art would never have happened (or, at least, never have happened in the same way) if the camera hadn’t been there as a rival to painters’ attempts to reproduce objective reality.
Second (and now I am getting really philistine, and you are entitled to hiss and groan), I believe that much which the camera can now capture, even in the hands of rank snapshot-taking amateurs such as I, would once have been considered outstanding landscape or portraiture.
I have a camera-phone (an app. on my cellphone). All I know how to do is to choose a position, point and press a button. I am easily lost with technology and I am certainly no professional photographer. But I feel sure that much which I (and you) routinely capture on digital chip could once have graced the walls of a respectable gallery. I’m not such a philistine as to not realise how much individual vision a great artist like Turner brought to his versions of external reality. But I do feel that if Turner were alive today, he would not even attempt many of the landscape subjects he undertook, because he would know that the camera (and photo-shopping) was there to trump him.
Everybody with a camera- phone in his/her pocket is now an expert landscapist.