Monday, October 15, 2007

Turner and the Critics

Poor old Turner: one minute the critics were singing his praises, the next they were berating him for being senile or infantile, or both. No great painter suffered as much from excesses of adulation and execration, sometimes for the same painting.

In the New Yorker a few weeks back, Simon Schama has a sympathetic look at J. M. W. Turner's paintings and their engagement with history as well as their critical reception both within Turner's lifetime and since his death. The online version of the article also includes an 8 painting slide show. Schama even talks about one of my favorite Turner pieces, “Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhon Coming On," which can be viewed, usually, at the Boston MFA. Shama reports that when it first appeared in an exhibit, the painting was:

mocked by the reviewers as “the contents of a spittoon, a “gross outrage to nature,” and so on. The critic of the Times thought the seven pictures—including “Slavers”—that Turner sent to the Royal Academy that year were such “detestable absurdities” that “it is surprising the [selection] committee have suffered their walls to be disgraced with the dotage of his experiments.”

The article is a great example of combining close ekphrastic attentions with a reception history of a paritcular artist (a deep context even?). For those in my 381 course, this is not a bad example of one kind of work you might do. My own tendency with deep context has always been, surprise, to tend towards poetry in such matters.



BladeRunner said...

The placement of words in your poem in response to the Slave Ship painting is supposed to imitate the ship, correct?

I found that the formatting of the page I was on pushed some of the words onto the next space, utterly ruining the effect. This was remedied by bringing the poem into a separate text document. You may want to think about adjusting the page so that the words fall on the correct lines. This can be tricky, because each computer may render the information you're sending it differently (for instance, it just might be this particular computer that is placing the last fews words in the incorrect place). I find, for poems like these, where the visual element of the structure is important, that it is better to use a image instead of plain text. That assures that the spacing and placement is preserved, no matter how the computer decides to format it.

I submit that fanacious (line 11) is not a word in the English language. Firefox's spell check and the Oxford Dictionary agree with me. It seems to be connected to the word fancy, but I don't think the suffix -ious is normally applied. Interestingly enough, the word fancy has an archaic meaning as an adjective describing a piece of art created from the imagination rather than real life. I'm not sure how that connects to the "market's fanacious hope", but I found it interesting. What does that line mean?

David JP Hooker said...

Just a note on Simon Schauma..His comment comes from a series he did called "The Power of Art" which is currently running on PBS (channel 20 locally). I enjoyed the series so much I'm teaching from it in Art Survey, so the DVD is available to any art majors out there from the Department office.

dw said...


Thanks for the comment on the Turner poem. A couple of things, one of which, at least, we talked about over lunch. The formatting of the version here is from the on-line journal where it was published. The space is meant, more or less, to mimic the bright strip of light down the painting’s middle.

In the interest of “deep context,” let me show you what a mess this kind of writing can lead to. Your question about “fanacious” was posed a number of years ago by a woman who was leading a discussion group on a
web board. After searching through some very old emails (back when most of the folks in this class were not yet in high school—sigh) I found the exchange below, updated here to make links a bit more relevant.

She wrote: At my instigation, my online reading group has started a discussion of your poem, Before You Read the Plaque About Turner's 'Slave Ship.'" It's one wow of a poem. But we've all run aground on "fanacious." One of us discovered that it's in Turner's epigram to the painting, but we still have no clue as to its meaning.

I wrote back: When I included the Turner poem on my list for a
humanities class, I did it because my students asked if I'd written about paintings. I had not expected too many others to visit the site. Still, I'm quite glad it found you (or you found it). I was, in fact, a bit surprised as I moved on from Richland this fall to take a teaching job here in the Chicago area.

In answer to your question: "fanacious" is a term stolen straight from Turner's epigraph to the painting. He attached to it these lines: "Hope, Hope, fanacious Hope!/Where is thy market now?" I included it for two reasons. 1) Because I wanted to slide Turner's own voice/sensibility into the conversation, somehow. 2) Because I loved the sound of that word, fanacious.

Like you, though, I couldn't figure out for the life of me what it meant--despite my best efforts to search dictionaries, including the OED. I guessed roughly what one of your group members suggested—a conflation of fanatical and tenacious. Still, I including the word because I loved its sound. I initially read about the epigraph from this very
helpful site, a web version of the work of Victorian scholar George Landow.

Since then, I've been asked a few times about it, and I've dug around enough to learn that the lines are purported to have been an altered quote from the 18th century writer James Thomson (turns out I wasn't getting Turner's voice into the poem after all). The
entire quote was this:

'Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay; /
Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds /
Declare the Typhoon's coming. /
Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard /
The dead and dying--ne'er heed their chains /
Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope! /
Where is thy market now?'

(I had picked this up from a site at the U of Texas which is no longer available on-line. The hard copy I have quotes a good deal from the work of John McCoubrey (as does Landow)).

So is the term fanacious or fallacious? I'm not certain. I AM certain that the power and foolishness of the "market" determining the fate of human lives is a kind of evil that the painting helps me to see, to imagine and include myself s in, somehow.

Later, in response to an additional inquiry in the discussion group, I wrote:

With the risk of shutting down discussion on a another concern you raised, I use the term "master" at the end of the poem in a way that, I hope, suggests three possible connotations of the term, all of which have interesting resonances given the subject matter. There's the use of "master" in regards to slavery and the ship. The use of master to refer to the master painter of a masterpiece (who cannot light the depths, no matter how good he is at light-play about the surface) and, yes, the master God, whom Turner saw as
punishing the perpetrators of this crime, yet, troublingly, who doesn't seem to save those very human bodies sinking down.

One final note about how deep context works. In reading about this painting, I also found John Ruskin’s lines about Turner’s work, and I included a few in the poem. Here’s a portion of the quote (Landow uses it to, in part, critique Ruskin’s gushing about Turner):

Purple and blue, the lurid shadows of the hollow breakers are cast upon the mist of night, which gathers cold and low, advancing like the shallow of death upon the guilty ship as it labours amidst the lightning of the sea, its thin masts written upon the sky in lines of blood, girded with condemnation in that fearful hue which signs the sky with horror, and mixes its flaming flood with the sunlight, and, cast far along the desolate heave of the sepulchral waves, incarnadines the multitudinous sea.

What’s important to me, though, as a writer, is how way leads on to way. I ended up getting fascinated with Ruskin and his idea of the pathetic fallacy. That ended up leading to another
long poem, this one engaging Ruskin and nature and poetry, and all sorts of other false leads and deep contexts and whatnot.