What puzzles me, however, is how few of all commentaries, reviews etc. that focus on the stunningly radical spirit permeating much of his work, not only in his later days but also at times earlier. It has been repeated, for example, time and time again, that he was an early precursor of impressionism. Of course he was, but that is far from enough. Which one of the French impressionists, for instance, would ever had ventured to produce paintings like Turner’s watercolours ”Colour Beginning” or ”Ship Fire”, or oil-paintings such as ”The Morning after the Deluge” or ”Sun Setting over a Lake”?
Pictures like these are indeed the forerunners of something that was definitely beyond the scope of Monet, Renoir and Pissarro. It cannot be wrong to maintain that in these paintings – which must have appeared completely strange and confusing to many of their contemporary viewers – we see the forerunners of abstract art and modernist painting of the 20th century.
Just to deviate from the representational, figurative ”task” of art, the way Turner started doing it, must have been a chock to many. In Turner’s paintings we encounter – possibly for the first time in Western art – how colour and line are forming together a purely pictorial entity, liberated from any kind of object-related, representational function.
In one of the sequences in Mike Leigh’s prize-awarded film, showing Turner sitting in front of a daguerrotype photographer, Turner reveals his worries about photography becoming one day capable of taking colour pictures of landscapes. Today we know how unjustified his worries were – for two main reasons.
Firstly: The way the techniques of photography have subesequently developed and become increasingly refined, it has achieved two distinct functions: as a means of documentation and as a pictorial art in its own right.
Secondly: The art of painting is once and for all liberated from the documentary task it once had. Its essence and raison d’être – as pictorial art in its own right – is not (or, indeed, should not be) questioned any more.
Turner obviously was a man of few words. He wrote no flamboyant manifestos, like many of his 20th century colleagues; and his lectures at the Royal Academy of Arts are known to have been both strikingly conservative and dull. So we cannot know what he was thinking when he made these painings which seem to us like meteoric splashdowns from the 20th century into the 19th.
We only know that he paved the way for much that was still to come, more than half a century later on.