The National Gallery — Level 2, 1700-1930: J. M. W. Turner

There are two museums here. The first painting, Life-Boat and Manby Apparatus Going Off to a Stranded Vessel Making Signal (Blue Lights) of Distress, is from the Victoria & Albert Museum which I’d visited a couple of days prior to my National Gallery jaunt. The blogging of my V&A trip was solid Mediæval and Renaissance, and along with everything non-North-East Eurasian European peninsula, there was no place for Joseph Mallord William Turner. The National Gallery put on a Turner trio for me, so I’ve rolled the V&A one in here.

Michel Serres loves Turner. I’m sure he resonated with me as well prior to my student years introduction to Serres, but I forever associate Turner with that time when my university philosophy friends, having already blown my mind on Butler and Deleuze said, “Well if you like them, you’re gonna love Serres.” It was probably Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy, and the chapter Turner Translates Carnot, seducing me with the interplay of these three subjects, with thermodynamics and art. It occurs to me now that the scene in Feersum Endjinn, where Count Sessine is in the bowels of a steam train with a younger, forked version of himself is a work of Turner.

It may be unremarkable to love both The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her Last Berth to be broken up and — especially — Rain, Steam and Speed — The Great Western Railway, but perhaps it is having seen them so often they serve as a mnemonic for Serres, who in turn leads me through the art of Turner, through science and aesthetics and ethics, and makes it so much more than just singular, remarkable paintings.

As with Joseph Wright of Derby’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, I found myself in Room 34 faced with works I’ve seen for years in print unexpectedly there before me. I made some noise. The school kids were all, “What the fuck, tall old weird person?” They were being forced to stand before it and experience Art. I wonder if they could sense how remarkable these works are, or if that was drowned beneath the imperative to concur, that yes, like the Mona Lisa and Shakespeare these are masterpieces. The Mona Lisa is unremarkable, mediocre, forgettable. Turner, particularly in his 1830s and ’40s period, is a monster. You can see him moving toward the intensity of Rain, Steam, and Speed in much earlier works, in the cloud and circulating light, and you can see traces of where he came from in the Temeraire itself, sliding between Baroque, Romanticism, and Realism, going somewhere that superficially resembles Impressionism, but there’s no way to get to that from where Turner ended up.

To see these close up, shoving in a crowd to get close enough to marvel at the detail, to wait for that break in the throng to be able to photograph them, all while rushing to make the airport. The hare running before the train is a long diagonal blob, and the detailed photo misses it entirely, but look at the train, a black maw around a white-hot inferno, and on the shore between the bridges’ arcs, a group of dancers; like the wheels on the train precise in the raw chaos of brush strokes. Look at the sky in the rectangle of paddle-wheel tug, funnel, smoke and the Temeraire’s pale bow. It shimmers and burns in the heat, convection rising and falling, peeling off, dirtying and hazing the air. The slender black upright of the funnel links both these paintings; as Serres says, “the entire world becomes a steam engine … Turner entered into the boiler … the painting is inside”.