Dawn plans a mid-day trip to the National Gallery of Art. We ride our bikes over after we work out at our gym. We’re going mainly to see the J.M.W. Turner exhibition, since it’s closing next week. But while we’re there we may as well check out the Edward Hopper.
Being the ignorant fellow that I am, I’m pretty clueless as to who this Turner guy is. But, as I learn today, I’m at least familiar with his painting of HMS Temeraire. I’m not sure why. But the amazing discovery today is: dude painted other boats. Lots of other boats. Non-boat stuff too, but, as you’ll see, I mainly concentrate on his maritime works.
First up is Fisherman at Sea (1796, oil on canvas, 91.4 x 122.2 cm, framed, Tate, London). It’s dark scary night-time. I try to figure out just what they’re doing at the moment, since they don’t seem to have sails up, neither do they have out sweeps or oars. Okay then, they must have nets out, but it’s hard to see ’em. Seems like I can make out one line that’s out, but that looks taut like an anchor line. Ah, there are some floats, what must be the nets.
And Dawn by this time is done with this gallery and moving on to the next. She makes so much better use of her time at museums. I always want to stop and stare. She likes the 30-minute exhibition. I like the 5-hour tour. So that’s why I pretty much ignore everything else and go for the boats. Gives me time to stare properly at some things anyway.
Then there’s The Shipwreck (1805, oil on canvas, 170.5 x 241.5 cm, framed, Tate, London). Again with the scary night, but this is much scarier what with the wreck and all. The ship itself is pretty much hidden, behind the sail of the cutter or launch or whichever boat it is, the biggest of the ship’s boats.
At least Spithead: Boat’s Crew Recovering an Anchor (1808, oil on canvas, 171.4 x 235 cm, framed, Tate, London) is daytime, although it looks like a crummy day’s work nonetheless. Looks pretty windy. And it’s a strange angle where the viewer sees the action unfolding. We’re way down low, right at the surface of the sea. The horizon is just a straight line. We’re almost in a strange bowl, underneath which is this supposed anchor. Again, what hard work. How deep is Spithead anyway?
The very earliest Horatio Hornblower story has him arriving on HMS Justinian, in Spithead. He’s immediately seasick, to great derision, especially from the evil Simpson.
The real stars of the show to me today are the two paintings of Trafalgar. The first is Turner’s largest work, up there on the wall looking as big as my living room, The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 (1823-1824, oil on canvas, 259.1 x 365.8 cm [that’s like 8 feet by 12 feet], National Maritime Museum, London). It apparently was much criticized in its day, for daring to compress the action. Notice how the famous morning “England expects …” signal is flying from Victory’s main-mast, when it would have been on the mizzen-mast, which we see the mizzentop mast has fallen, when that happened later, in the early afternoon, while Redoubtable sinks in the foreground, which wasn’t until the next day. It’s all very exciting, if not at all photo-journalistic.
More up close and personal is The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory (1806, reworked 1808, oil on canvas, 170.8 x 238.8 cm, framed, Tate, London). At first I can’t figure out why everyone seems to be just standing around, when it’s clearly some warm action going on, all sorts of ships yardarm to yardarm. But then I figure that those guys in the red coats are the Marines. Sharpshooters, although they’re on deck, not in the tops. Those other guys over there are in fact hauling on ropes, not just lollygagging. Then it really hits me that the one other group, well, they are in fact just standing there. Or some are crouching there, cradling the just mortally wounded Lord Nelson, who lies in the middle of them. I stare at this tragic scene for quite a while. Then I go back to the living-room sized Trafalgar picture for a while. Then back to this one for another long stare.
Sadly, Turner’s later work leaves me pretty cold. He apparently is pre-figuring modernism, getting almost impressionistic. Somewhat unsatisfying mush, to my eyes. Case in point is Disaster at Sea, aka The Wreck of the Amphitrite (c. 1833-1835, oil on canvas, 171.5 x 222.1 cm, Tate, London). Those blobs are said to be women and children. It’s supposed to be tragic. It sounds tragic, but I guess I expect a painting to do more than sound tragic. And it’s weird because Turner goes to Italy around this time and does some damned sharp paintings of Venice.
Time to leave, Dawn is quite done here. Maybe I can come back during the week.
We go over to the East Building. Whereas Turner was just really crowded, there’s a long line waiting to get into the Edward Hopper. No thanks. We’re not that big of fans. We head back to the West Building for British Picturesque Landscapes. This turns out to be one tiny gallery, with book illustrations. Gives us time then to also check out the Baroque Woodcut exhibition. Which turns out to be stunning in its own way as well. Great explanation and examples of process. That one runs through March. You should totally go see that one.