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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Turner Monet Twombly’

- - Friday, October 12, 2012

TURNER MONET TWOMBLY: LATER PAINTINGS
By Jeremy Lewison
Tate Publishing, $40, 272 pages

TURNER INSPIRED: IN THE LIGHT OF CLAUDE
By Ian Warrell
National Gallery Co. (Distributed by Yale University Press), $45, 144 pages

The author Thomas Merton wrote, "Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time." It's an accurate assessment. When you go to an art gallery or museum, certain paintings immediately capture your interest and imagination. Other works will lead you to feelings of boredom, frustration or even repulsion.

In my case, traditional art trumps modern art every weekday -- and twice on Sundays. I prefer the Baroque and Renaissance art periods, although I enjoy some contemporary work (French Impressionism, Canada's Group of Seven). Even so, few artists have ever captured my undivided attention quite like Joseph Mallord William Turner.

The British-born Turner, known as "the painter of light" in some quarters, is widely regarded as one of the great Romantic masters of landscapes and nautical scenes. Working with oils and watercolors, he created brilliant, lifelike scenes of the English countryside and European grandeur -- along with ships, ships and more ships. Some of Turner's most famous paintings, including "The Fighting Temeraire" tugged to her last berth to be broken up in 1838, and "Rain, Steam and Speed -- The Great Western Railway," have been examined in intricate detail by scholars. His lush artistic style, especially in the later years, was also emulated by many great Impressionist painters.

Two recent British exhibitions of Turner have helped create a fascinating composite of the artist as an inspiration to others, and how he was inspired by another great painter. The accompanying hardcover volumes include well-written essays and beautiful color plates of paintings, watercolors and sketches. Readers of varying expertise will not only gain more insight into Turner's work, but also understand why he's meant so many things to so many people.

Jeremy Lewison's "Turner Monet Twombly: Later Paintings" is an intriguing and, at times, unusual comparison of Turner to Claude Monet and Cy Twombly. The Turner-Monet link is "well established," as the French Impressionist painter went with fellow artist Camille Pissarro to "the National Gallery and the South Kensington Museum ... to view the Turners." The Turner-Twombly link is one of "shared thematics," as the self-declared "Romantic symbolist" from the United States enjoyed looking "at Turner over many years." The Monet-Twombly link, which the author admits "might seem more tenuous," is viewed as "an affinity in terms of themes and preoccupations."

However, is there a Turner-Monet-Twombly link? Mr. Lewison writes that it "would be inaccurate to suggest that all three artists shared common goals or even that they all three consistently embraced similar themes." If you examine the later period of their careers -- which the Tate Liverpool exhibition concentrates on -- then "there are sufficient overlaps between the three, or at times only two of them, to be able to suggest that no matter what century an artist was or is working in, their preoccupations have a certain proximity."

Hence, Turner served as an early inspiration for Impressionist painters like Monet. His imaginative design, vivid use of line and color, and creative spirit led to a French art revolution. And while Twombly's ultramodern style isn't everyone's cup of tea, the strong colors and powerful themes do fit in with Turner's later work.

In contrast, Ian Warrell's "Turned Inspired: In the Light of Claude" combines the work of Turner and the brilliant painter Claude Gellee. They've been together for years in Room 15 of the National Gallery -- where this exhibition was held -- after Turner bequeathed two paintings to be paired with two Claude masterworks. Yet as the author notes, "Turner's regular tributes to Claude thread through his work like letters to a distant beloved." In particular, Turner's early Romantic landscape paintings are stunningly similar in style, color and intensity to Claude's astonishing Baroque depictions of Italian history.

One of Warrell's essays mentioned this interesting fact: "Turner had very early on adopted Claude's revolutionary positioning of the sun at the heart of many of his images, an effect that remarkably few other artists had been bold enough to attempt." He's absolutely correct in this assessment. The powerful light and goldenlike effect of Claude's paintings, such as "Seaport With the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba," is clearly visible in Turner's "Dido Building Carthage" and "The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire," among many others.

Much like another great British landscape painter, John Constable, Claude served for Turner "as a refreshing source from which to 'drink at again and again.'" The Baroque master inspired the Romantic genius at every point in his lengthy career. To truly understand Turner's greatness, it's vitally important to compare and contrast his work with his greatest artistic influence.

J.M.W. Turner died in 1851, but remains one of the world's most widely studied artists. Mr. Lewison and Mr. Worrell's excellent books prove that as much as we already know about this great artist, there's plenty left to discover.

• Michael Taube, a regular contributor to The Washington Times, is a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.