Unassailable Forces of Nature

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.

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Equestrian Elegance

While conducing prospect research at work, I stumbled upon an unmarked George Stubbs exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. An under-recognized late 18th century British artist, Stubbs is renowned for his exquisite equestrian portraits, which expertly depict the musculature of wild and domesticated horses. In his works, the horse is elevated to the position of a human protagonist. Stubbs meticulous brush details both the physical attributes and the unique character of his animal sitters. First encountering his impressive portrait of Whistlejacket (1762) at the National Gallery in London, I was captivated by the energy emanating off of the canvas. Emphasizing the horse’s independent energy, rather than portraying the stallion as a docile pet, Stubbs respectfully paints the horse with stoic pride.

Coming from an equestrian background, I am deeply moved by his honest and strong depictions. Thus, I was thrilled to learn that the Met was temporarily exhibiting a number of Stubbs works in gallery 629, located in the rear of the British Art Wing. Eight works are on loan until the Yale Center for British Art completes its renovation in 2016. Braving the rain and relentless crowds, I navigated the Met to look upon two of his works in particular: Turf, with Jockey up, at New Market (1765) and Lustre, held by a Groom (1762) Astounded by the symmetry of his works, I sat in quiet contemplation. Stubbs paintings are not only materially beautiful, but also they instruct the viewer on how he or she should act towards animals—always with kindness and deference. The power of art to act as a beautiful guide is by no means limited to Stubbs’ animal portraiture. Slyly seeping into the consciousness of humanity, artists’ agendas are often conveyed covertly to the viewer. Figures and subjects are chosen to reinforce common notions, promote political agendas, and even implant seeds of change. While some artists go forth and boldly present their own personal and political viewpoints, I value the genius behind the simple subtlety of Stubbs whispered messages.