As you walk into the first gallery of the Museum of Fine Art’s big J.M.W. Turner show, you’re gobsmacked by the first painting you face: the MFA’s own “Fall of the Rhine at Schaffhausen.” It’s nearly 5 feet tall by nearly 8 feet wide. In this vast landscape painting of a scene in the Swiss Alps, a waterfall rushing — gushing — between a cliff and a massive rock pile seems to be aiming not only at the small caravan of figures camped out in front of it but directly at you. The sky is lowering, but in the distance a rainbow is forming.
Welcome to the world of Joseph Mallord William Turner, whom the MFA’s Frederick Ilchman — the show’s chief Boston curator and my generous guide — argues is England’s greatest painter. This fascinating and powerful show makes a strong case for that opinion.
This is the exhibition’s last stop on a three-city tour, which began at the Tate Britain in London (home to the majority of the pictures here, the museum to which Turner bequeathed his store of unsold work, including oil paintings, watercolors, drawings and sketchbooks). The show then went to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas before coming to Boston (where it will remain on view until July 10). There are more than a hundred pieces here, and they’re all worth careful attention.
One major theme of the show, which is suggested in the title “Turner’s Modern World,” is the artist’s awareness of both the advances and dangers of industrialization. Near the massive Rhine picture (which Turner painted when he was about 30) are several earlier watercolors and drawings depicting kilns, a mine shaft, ironworks, a shipwreck (a special forecast of important work to come), a cannon foundry and a burning London theater (a fire to which Turner may have been an eyewitness). What at first seems a merely pretty, teenaged watercolor landscape shows both Windsor Castle and an adjacent industrial mill.
Turner was quite thoroughly aware of the social and political conditions of his time. The most famous and certainly one of the most powerful paintings in the show, MFA’s “The Slave Ship” (full title: “Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On”), painted in 1840, at the height of Turner’s maturity (he was 65), leaves no doubt about Turner’s social consciousness. The painting was first exhibited at the time of the first World Anti-Slavery Convention in London. This devastating masterpiece gets its own shrine-like space, important to let viewers see not only the brilliant colors of the sunset and oncoming storm and the delicate masts of the ghostly ship, but most crucially the hands of the enslaved reaching up out of the roiling water. If you wonder why Boston was one of only three stops on this tour, this painting must surely be the answer. It's in dazzling condition but too fragile to travel.
So is the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s “The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons,” another great painting of an event Turner witnessed firsthand (in 1834), so that thrilling work unfortunately isn’t part of this big retrospective. But its companion piece is — the Cleveland Museum’s version of the same subject, in which the sky itself seems to be ablaze as does its reflection in the Thames. This painting alone is worth a visit to the Turner show, and if you live in the Boston area, the MFA is a lot closer than Cleveland.
Turner lived in an age of war and revolution, and a section of the show called “War and Peace” has some startling works, both glorifying war and exposing the suffering caused by it. “The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the ‘Victory’” (an earlier work, painted 1806-1808 — Ilchman enjoyed pointing out Turner’s elaborately wordy titles), is almost a cubist jumble of intersecting clashes. In “Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps,” we can see Turner drawing a parallel between ancient and modern warfare, Hannibal and Napoleon. (In the distance you can make out the wonderful detail of a tiny elephant lifting its trunk.)
Ilchman also pointed out various subtleties of the installation, some of which I had barely noticed. Each gallery is painted a different color. Gray walls in the rooms dealing with the industrial revolution, dark blood red in the rooms about war. Most of the rooms have old-fashioned cornices and moldings. One large room is hung the way paintings at the Royal Academy were hung in the 19th century: “skied” — that is, paintings hung one on top of another, all the way up to the ceiling. The preferred position was just above eye level, which is where the three biggest Turners in this gallery are hung, and where Ilchman thinks Turner wanted us to look, slightly up at them. On the very top row, closest to the sky, hang only empty frames — a sly art-historical joke.
But in the last room of the exhibit, there are no moldings or cornices, the track lighting is very bright, and the walls are stark white. This room is called “Modern Painter” — an allusion to Turner advocate John Ruskin’s famous five-volume book of art criticism, “Modern Painters” (1842).
Although Turner achieved success both with the art world and the public, not everyone (not even as smart a person as Mark Twain) understood what he was doing. In “Modern Painters,” Ruskin wrote about Turner, and how to look at his paintings, with particular eloquence. He singled out “The Slave Ship,” which he actually owned. (Ultimately, he couldn’t bear to live with it and sold it to the Metropolitan Museum, which later deaccessioned it — hence its final home in Boston.)
In this last room of “Turner’s Modern World,” we see a gallery of paintings that could have been painted much more recently than Turner. Impressionist — and even Expressionist — looking paintings that, from a distance, you might have mistaken for Monets or even de Koonings, with smears and swirls of paint that almost completely obliterate the subject. Especially seascapes, with light turning into paint before your very eyes. Some of these are in fact unfinished, but it’s actually hard to tell which ones are finished and which ones aren’t. Some of them, like the Metropolitan Museum’s “Whalers (‘The Whale Ship’)” or the Tate’s “Peace — Burial at Sea,” are among the most dazzling images in the show.
And there are also paintings hanging in earlier galleries — like “Wreckers — Coast of Northumberland with a Steam-Boat Assisting a Ship off Shore” (you could hardly tell the subject of this painting without its full title), from the Yale Center for British Art, or the Tate’s “Snow Storm — Steam Boat Off a Harbour’s Mouth,” or the magnificent “Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steam Boats of Shoal Water” from the Clark Institute — that are also so abstract, so “modern,” they could have easily fit into this last room.
And I haven’t even mentioned Turner’s blinding images of the sun (or moon), or the roomful of paintings of Venice (which Ilchman regards as political allegories: the failure of the Venetian empire as opposed to the increasing success of the British), or Turner’s amazingly delicate drawings or breathtaking little sketchbooks. The more I keep thinking about this show, the more I want to go back and see it all again.
"Turner's Modern World" is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston through July 10.