27 September 2009

Life is Big, People Are Small

It really is, and they really are.

On Friday I went to London. I was originally going to see a William Blake exhibit at the Tate, but then my father sent me information about a Turner exhibit at the same place and urged me to go, so I did that, too.

I don't like Turner. I never have. But I've never known why. My reaction to art is at first always emotional, and I reason about it only if I'm interested in doing so. There is much art in the world, and most of it isn't Turner, so I chose to spend my time until Friday afternoon exploring other art rather than thinking about why I don't like Turner. I went to this exhibit, in fact, because I thought perhaps I'd like Turner better if I saw many of his paintings rather than the relatively few I'd been exposed to. The exhibit was Turner and Other Painters - those who'd influenced him, or whom he'd copied as a means of doing them better. An excellent way to come to appreciate someone's art, its uniqueness and richness. And, indeed, there were many wonderful paintings there. Unfortunately, none of them were by Turner.

Turner is sort of the Thomas Kinkade of the early 19th century: he's a painter of light. This is what he's best known and most admired for, and it's what I dislike most about him. Until Friday, I would have said, "Ugh. I can't stand those giant swirly canvasses, with all that..." and I would have circled my arm in the air swiftly and repeatedly. Looking at all the canvasses on Friday, though, I realised that what I can't stand is the emotion. Turner substitutes a kind of hazy emotion for visual precision. The first few times, this substitution is just, for me, irritating and masking; after that, it becomes obtrusive and vaguely pretentious. I don't like to be told how to feel about the light, or about what's presented on the canvas: I like to see it, and then decide how I feel about it. Of course, art always coerces one to feel some way or another about what it portrays; it's just that Turner is more openly coercive than most.

The other artists were, almost without fail, more appealing to me than Turner's work. To be fair, I loved Canaletto before I saw him hung in that room. But Girtin, Rosa, Whoeverthatdutchguyis: this was my first viewing, and I found them, simply, better.

This isn't to say I didn't like some of the Turners. I did. But I just didn't like most of them (the very first one in the exhibit I actually found physically repellent! But that response did not recur), and I didn't like almost all of them as much as I liked the ones by other painters. But then, that's always been my fate: I dislike the things that others, especially critics, like, and I like the things they don't.

The Blake exhibit, incidentally, was fabulous. Oh, could the man paint! And they'd done something similar with him, placing on the wall opposite that which held his paintings (all exhibited at his 1809 exhibit) a series of paintings other artists produced in 1809. But in his case it worked: I could see very clearly not only how terrific he was, but how absolutely bizarre and alien his works must have seemed.

And no Mr. Fallen. Which was a relief, and probably just as well, if also a little saddening.

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