Luminous Experience

IN THE EARLY-TO MID-1800s, English painter Joseph Mallord William Turner stunned the art world by creating atmospheric, brilliantly colored, light- filled seascapes that practically enveloped the viewer in fog and mist, honey-golden clouds and the rippling currents that washed through the ports of his island home. So tactile is the experience of standing before one of his immense seascapes and so convincing are his extraordinary effects and techniques that, in his day, Turner’s audiences were often left speechless. As evidenced by contemporary audiences who come out to view Turner’s Modern and Ancient Ports: Passages through Time, now on exhibit at The Frick Collection, that hushed reaction is timeless.

Related Content: Heckscher Museum Leaps Into Nature

The exhibition, organized by Susan Galassi and Joanna Seidenstein, is anchored by two of Turner’s great masterpieces, the Frick’s own “Harbor of Dieppe: Changement de Domicile” and “Cologne, the Arrival of a Packet-Boat: Evening.” A surprise guest, a never before exhibited unfinished painting, was introduced by renowned Turner scholar Ian Warrell, the exhibition’s third curator. “The Harbor of Brest: The Quayside and Château,” on loan from Tate London, harbors a secret. “Because it was unfinished,” Galassi explained, “it was rolled up and left in a store room and only discovered a hundred years later.” Galassi and Seidenstein decided to include the painting in the exhibition as they re-examined Turner’s work over the course of four years.

Hanging between the two Frick works, the complementary painting expands the sense of Turner’s vision. In the Cologne painting, “it’s as if we’re arriving by boat with him,” Galassi said. “We experience, with Turner, as we glide into the water, the awe that he must have first felt when he was struck by the sun, when he arrived at this beautiful enclosed port, when he saw it bathed in this golden light.” She added, “What we love about ‘The Harbor of Brest’ is that it gives us an opportunity to see a stage below the Frick paintings—the kind of molten colors. We see how he composed in color. How shape is beginning to come into precision, but then it’s left in this blurred fashion.”

Galassi and Seidenstein highlight these by including three smaller paintings depicting ports in ancient history. What’s immediately clear in viewing the six works hanging in the Oval Room is that, regardless of the time or place, whether real, mythical, ancient or modern, finished or unfinished, the heart of Turner’s paintings is the sun. At the center of each is a luminous burst of glowing warmth. The curators expanded the theme by including some two-dozen watercolors by the artist known to contemporaries as an astonishing magician, as well as sketchbooks and etchings. “He was regarded as the greatest living watercolor artist—perhaps of all time—but certainly of his time,” Galassi noted. But his light-filled canvasses were not universally hailed originally. “People were a little bit aghast,” she explained. “They knew the sun was not this golden and airy. They felt that he was heightening up nature. And that wasn’t done.”

Seidenstein described the “impossibly luminous surfaces and bright light” saying, “some characterized the light as glaring, even hard to look at. But through that thrusting veil of light, Turner achieved the indistinctness of form for which he would become known in his later works.”

The paintings in the exhibition focus on the years just following the Napoleonic wars, after some 20 years of the British not being able to cross the English Channel. Galassi and Seidenstein chose Turner’s concentration on harbors as a reference to something larger. Turner’s ports, Galassi said, “are a metaphor for the passage of time and for the journey, whether it’s an actual journey or a journey back through literature and history.” Seidenstein added that, “they’re about a certain uncertainty that says something about Turner’s historical moment. There’s a self-consciousness and an awareness in his generation of being at the brink of something. That’s expressed in these images of places where people are embarking on journeys.”

It’s not unusual for the two curators to complete each other’s thoughts. They’ve been working together on exhibitions since 2002. Senior curator Galassi has been at the museum for more than 25 years. For the Frick, whose collection goes back to the 14th century, she’s a bit of a modernist, focusing on artists from the 18th and 19th centuries. Galassi initially mentored Seidenstein as an intern and then brought her on to work side-by-side as a curatorial assistant on several major exhibitions over the past 15 years. “We’ve had an extraordinarily good voyage together,” Galassi said. Seidenstein’s new position as the museum’s current Anne L. Poulet curatorial fellow means she’s now fully co-authoring the exhibition and accompanying book.

Seidenstein described Turner as “a visionary artist, an intellectual and a brilliant painter,” calling his work radical. “He was quite deliberately challenging viewers and trying to expand the boundaries of art…capturing the experience of light.”

“I hope visitors will be visually dazzled. I hope they’ll be awed by some of the fine work in the watercolors and appreciate the breadth of mind of this artist who went his own way,” Galassi added. “It’s said that among Turner’s last words were ‘The sun is God.’ What exactly he meant by that we don’t know. But clearly light was optical, cosmic and maybe spiritual as well…Through so many years of looking, of being in the open air, through his training, his eye and the discipline that lies beneath them, the paintings look evanescent, as if they were just sort of breathed onto the page.”