“Turner’s Modern World,” which recently opened at the Museum of Fine Arts, should come with a warning label: This is no contemplative experience. Like any J.M.W. Turner show, it is inevitably a barrage of the irascible British painter’s vast gifts, dizzying in its painterly gymnastics and blistering with moral indignation. Turner had a point of view, and a vision for how it should be seen. You may not share either. But you won’t be left wondering where he stands.
At the MFA, that stance is front and center of an exhibition that also doesn’t shrink from taking a position. Much has been made of Turner’s wildly experimental bent serving as a gateway to Impressionism and the whole slate of modern art that followed. (It’s no small thing that Abstract Expressionist icon Mark Rothko gave many of his Seagram Murals to London’s Tate Britain out of admiration for Turner, nor that the UK’s annual award for its best, boundary-breaking contemporary artist is called the Turner Prize.) Less discussed, maybe, is his deep commitment to capturing a world in upheaval that he tracked with near reporter-like fervor.
A barber’s son who grew up in a small apartment above the shop in London’s Covent Garden, Joseph Mallord William Turner shared none of the privilege of the majority of his Royal Academy peers; John Constable, his chief rival, grew up in a family of endowed landowners. While he shared the tenets of British Romanticism, the order of his day — a reverence for nature, and a lament for the advance of modernity — Turner was more urgent than elegiac, more timely than nostalgic.
The show’s loosely chronological structure reinforces that priority from start to finish. Even as a young man, Turner was drawing on the tensions of Britain’s rapid transformation from an insular, pastoral nation to one defined by conquest and industry.
The first painting you see is “Fall of the Rhine at Schaffhausen,” kinetic and ominous, with a group of peasants scurrying helplessly away from a cascade of violently rushing water. Turner painted it in 1805-06 when he was just 30, carving a place for himself in the Romantic ethos in extreme terms — humanity dangerously out of synch with nature, as though prey to a predator. Around it, small watercolors sketch a young man in tune with the anxieties of his moment: one of a smoldering foundry; another of a medieval castle with an iron-smelting complex looming nearby, enveloped in smog.
Those sharp distinctions never left him. Where Constable favored mournful quietude — tenant farmers tending land for scraps as feudalism finally dissolved; great billowing clouds looming over church spires, a lament for Christian spirituality’s fade from the center of British life — Turner was determined to keep it cranked to 11. Some find that tiresome. I get it. But for the rest of us, Turner’s work is nothing short of exhilarating, an unpredictable thrill ride that yaws from delicately precise watercolors to big blustery oils on canvas. His talents were so broad and abundant, he could do anything. Instead, he did everything, and almost all of it breathtakingly well.
Did his reach exceed his grasp? Occasionally. Critics in his time — and ours — have shrugged off his efforts as showy bombast, delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. But Turner’s pictures capture the energy of a tumultuous time. His skies simmer and roil; his seas churn darkly. His work may lack nuance, but he was alive to his moment and attuned to its radical shifts.
One gallery here re-creates the Royal Academy, where Turner, Constable, and their peers showed frequently in competition. The wall is tiled floor to near-ceiling with just Turners, including four of his grandest (some might say grandiose) scenes of war. The absurd hanging convention of the era aside — the MFA has wisely suspended empty frames along the ceiling to let us know that, yes, back then, some poor sop’s works would have been hung virtually out of sight — it’s Turner at nearly unbearable concentration.
On the left is his “The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory,” 1806-08, a moment of British triumph that compresses time into a cinematic tableaux of overlapping narratives cloaked in smoke and mist; on the right, it’s “The Field of Waterloo,” 1818, with peasant women passing a lantern over the mounds of dead soldiers and looking for signs of life. It’s a scene of utter devastation, the dead piled high, an icy moon searing the night sky.
In a decade, Turner had changed, trading the glory of war for its bloody consequences — not surprising, perhaps, given the maimed British soldiers back from the Napoleonic wars by then a steady presence on London streets, and the untold dead left behind. Turner, with his cockney burr and working-man’s sensibilities, chose a side.
He embraced the big issues of his day, a proto-version of an artist-activist. Try to imagine the time: The American Revolution began around the time he was born in 1775, Great Britain’s most important colonies breaking violently away; in his 20s, Britain entered a ground war with Napoleon, with the poor being sent as fodder. The British empire was in convulsion, and rival colonial nations like the Netherlands, Portugal, and France were competing hotly for the wealth of territories around the world.
By the time Turner was at the height of his renown, slavery had been the main generator of colonial wealth. It had also been a target of scorn from a growing abolition movement, which Turner passionately supported. This brings us to the exhibition’s most harrowing moments, in a gallery called “Causes and Campaigns.” It’s the MFA’s dark honor to own what might be Turner’s most powerful painting, and surely his most chilling: “Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On),” from 1840. Turner’s titles were often plucked, as this was, from real events. Like the painting itself, his words leave little to the imagination.
The artist takes extravagant liberties in a grotesquely explicit display: wrists and ankles bound by iron shackles still somehow bobbing on the surface; voracious sea creatures feasting on discarded bodies as the ship slips through black waves toward a fiery, faraway horizon. It’s Turner’s moral fury at its most raw; it’s also violent and disturbing enough that it comes with warnings and video commentary meant to buffer its impact, as though anything could.
Turner could be melodramatic, but he could also be brutally honest, his righteous indignation like jet fuel for his creative fire. He left many of his paintings unfinished; after his death in 1851, one critic visiting the paint-and-paper-strewn shambles of his London home remarked that “it might have been the scene of a murder.” It’s not hard to imagine him painting to exhaustion amid the chaos, bursting with the strength of the righteous, his energies spilling from one canvas to the next in an anxious fury.
Consider “A Disaster at Sea (Wreck of Amphitrite),” from about 1835, his vision of the true-to-life horror of a ship loaded with female convicts and their children en route to the prison colonies of Australia. The ship ran aground off the coast of France, killing everyone on board as dozens watched from the nearby beach. The captain, the story goes, refused rescue for fear his charges would escape and he wouldn’t be paid; Turner seizes on the inhumanity with a scene of children and infants slipping beneath the waves under a raging sky.
Comfort was never Turner’s goal. But as big and blustery as he was, he could also be delicate and aware of the simple magic of light and sky. Tucked beneath those war paintings are small works like “Alpine Valley,” 1836, a mountain valley gently stained onto paper — Turner sketching a full emotional landscape with the sparest economy of gesture and paint.
The very last gallery here, with its white walls and pale wood floors, is built to evoke a contemporary art space. It suits Turner fine, despite the centuries. Four big paintings, of whales being hunted and slain, blubber flayed from skin, dominate one wall. But the space is more an occasion for soft possibility — little watercolor sketches that hint at quiet contemplation, furtive uncertainty, and the joy of the ineffable. “A Recollection of Venice: the Giudecca Canal in a Storm,” 1825, is dreamlike, a sky of deep lavender lazing into pale pink, light swallowed by dark. “Sunset,” from 1845, is what it says, spare and rich, a haze of cloud purpled by an amber sun, the epitome of sublime elegance.
These pieces don’t fit the Turner myth of a brash, cause-driven everyman blessed with the gift of paint. That’s largely because he never allowed them to be seen. After the artist died, the critic and philosopher John Ruskin, a Turner champion, found some 19,000 works on paper — these among them — strewn and stuffed throughout his house. They were a revelation. “Nothing since Pompeii so impressed me,” Ruskin wrote to his father.
What was Turner hiding? Could it be the only thing that rattled the great J.M.W. Turner — so firm in his convictions, so sure of everything — was his own uncertainty? We can’t know. But I like to think so. For all he was, Turner was human, full of doubt and wonder — and all the more great because of it.
TURNER’S MODERN WORLD
Through July 10. Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 465 Huntington Ave. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org