Standing mesmerized in front of J.M.W. Turner’s Field of Waterloo at the Tate spawned my passion to pursue a career in art. Transported into the battle’s aftermath, I felt the penetration of light searing across the canvas. Illuminating the uncharted darkness, Turner’s canvas speaks without a filter. Simply by being, it, like many great works, is courageous. I was drawn to the daring nature of Turner’s work, his uncensored representation of the carnage as well as his ability to make the grotesque seemingly beautiful.
So began my first cover letter.
From the age of 13, I have felt an uncanny affiliation with the pioneering British painter J.M.W Turner. Attracted to the unabashed manner in which Turner paints, I have spent the past 8 years processing his painterly genius. Artifacts of the past, his controversial works, while abstract, grasp the unassailable forces of nature that persist into today. Raw, unfiltered, and pathos-laden, Turner’s landscapes have a magnetic ability; spectators move ever closer to his canvases, hoping that proximity will lead to greater clarity. Yet, clarity is not to be found. Offering up a myriad of interpretations, Turner’s works thrust the spectator into the picture field, forcing him to comprehend an uncertain reality.
Thus, while hoards of spectators rushed to the Met’s “Manus X Machina,” I eased up the grand staircase making my way to “Turner’s Whaling Pictures,” an exhibit on view between May 10 and August 7, 2016. Organized 120 years after the Met acquired Turner’s Whalers ca. 1845, “Turner’s Whaling Pictures” reunited the artist’s quartet of Whaling pictures, which were shown in pairs at the Royal Academy in London between 1845-6. The three companions from Tate Britain along with relating whaling instruments accented the walls. Commanding the spectator’s gaze, the Met’s Whalers hung centered. The exhibit endeavored to link Turner’s whaling works to Melville’s epic novel, Moby Dick. While intrigued by the loose literary link, I found the canvases to stand-alone; their sheer presence required full attention.
Turner’s all-powerful whaling works capture nature in terms of the sublime. As stated by the exhibit’s cataloguer: “seascapes were a laboratory for the development of Turner’s style.” Nearly 1/3 of his extant works are classified as marines. In Turner’s whaling works, nature supersedes man. In the Met’s Whalers, man is rapacious, desiring to harness superior marine creatures. The water churns. The whale thrashes. The gale encircles the beast, boat, and man. Pirouetting across the canvas, the spectator’s eye finds no respite; there is no calm.
Rather than gravitating to contemporary revolutionaries, I am ever drawn back to my artistic beginnings: Turner. Harnessing the sublime power of nature while checking the power of mankind, Turner’s works are pioneering in content and execution. Far from dated, Turner’s bold perspective provides a lexicon for understanding radical contemporary creations.