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tv   Mosaic World News  LINKTV  May 15, 2012 11:30am-12:00pm PDT

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(narrator) joseph mallord william turner, born in 1775, was an unlikely candidate to become britain's greatest painter. he was awkward, short tempered and often difficult to deal with. he never lost his strong working class accent-- people attending his lectures had little idea what he was saying.
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turner traveled throughout britain and europe. often on foot, carrying a paintbox, he sketched and painted lyrically beautiful landscapes that changed the face of british art. when he died in 1851, he was one of the wealthiest and most famous artists in britain's history. throughout his career, he was always well aware of the key to his success. (reader) "the only secret i have got is damned hard work." (narrator) turner's life and career began in london. by 1788, at the age of 14, j.m.w. turner was apprenticed to an architect as a draftsman. architectural views appeared in his works throughout his life. the next year, turner entered the royal academy of arts school at somerset house. its president, the painter joshua reynolds,
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endorsed the prevailing view that ranked paintings in a clearly defined hierarchy. history painting was considered the noblest because it could portray events drawn from historical incidents, literature, the bible and mythology. genre painting, scenes from daily life, came next because they also offered examples of virtue to inspire the viewer. then came the more lowly categories of portraiture, landscape and still life, which were disdained as mere transcriptions of the natural world. throughout his career, turner struggled to elevate landscape painting and demonstrate that it could equal history painting in complexity and expressive power. in 1791, turner began a routine he continued for 40 years. after the royal academy's annual exhibitions held in the early summer he traveled in search of subjects.
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♪ in his first journeys to wales, the 16 year old turner was following in the footsteps of william gilpin, who launched the vogue for picturesque travel with his illustrated guidebooks. in the 1770s, landscape artists developed a picturesque style, depicting scenes of unspoiled nature. they created romanticized views of the rough countryside pleasingly arranged in quiet, harmonious compositions. the picturesque allowed turner to move beyond mere topographical images and concentrate on atmosphere and poetic effects of light. advocates of the picturesque sought subjects that gave witness to the ravages of time and neglect. the wye valley was a favorite destination.
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tintern abbey's romantic associations were impeccable-- a remnant of england's medieval splendor, its nearby woods and hillsides celebrated in poetry by william wordsworth. (reader) "once again do i behold these steep and lofty cliffs-- that on a wild secluded scene impress-- thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect-- the landscape with the quiet of the sky." (narrator) turner adopted the picturesque approach but focused on the abbey itself. his precocious virtuosity as a watercolorist was beginning to emerge. wales provided him with many picturesque subjects. the interior of the abandoned norman priory at ewenny with its pools of shadow, broken by raking light reminded one critic of rembrandt. by the mid 1790s, turner had taken up oil painting.
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he learned by looking at 17th century dutch marine paintings and especially the idealized landscapes by two french artists who worked in italy-- nicholas poussin and claude lorraine. turner followed claude's example by ennobling landscapes with historical or mythological figures. he made frequent visits to wales. as he moved further into the mountains, he found subjects that were central to one of the most powerful elements in late 18th century british aesthetic thought-- the sublime. ♪ the idea of the sublime, embodied by the overpowering majesty of nature's grandeur, was an idea popularized by the philosopher edmund burke. for burke, contemplating that grandeur-- either directly or in paintings-- overwhelmed viewers
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with feelings of fear, awe and exaltation. it also had a moral element, emphasizing man's insignificance and humility in the face of the terrifying forces of nature. the fascination with the sublime was an international phenomenon that intrigued many artists of the time-- inspiring philippe jacques de loutherbourg's terrifying alpine avalanche... joseph wright's spectacular vesuvius... and caspar david friedrich's transcendent image of a wanderer contemplating the infinite. turner's interest in the sublime led him to travel to switzerland in search of wild landscapes that were thrillingly vast, and remote. he turned edmund burke's vision in any direction he chose. he imbued biblical subjects lie the fifth plague of egypt with the awesome power of nature's destructive forces.
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the swirling mists of the alpine blizzard that the carthaginian general hannibal and his army encountered while crossing into italy merged the sublime with the vaunted genre of history painting. turner was always attentive to his career. he had opened a gallery of his own where he could show his works-- and keep the sales commissions. the 31 year-old painter was appointed professor of perspective at the royal academy. he used that pulpit to promote the possibilities of landscape painting as equal to history painting, urging his students by saying-- (reader) "to select combine and concentrate that which is beautiful in nature and admirable in art is as much the business of the landscape painter in his line as in the other departments of art." (narrator) turner lived through one of the
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most patriotic periods in british history. the french revolution descended into violence. louis xvi's execution in 1793 shocked and appalled the british. the imperial ambitions of napoleon that followed the failure to establish a republic kept britain at war with france and its allies for 22 years. napoleon led the french armies across europe in victory after victory, heightening the british fear of invasion. that fear lessened in 1805 when the british navy under admiral horatio nelson destroyed the combined french and spanish fleet at trafalgar off the coast of spain. that triumph was marred by nelson's death from a sniper's bullet. the nation both celebrated his victory and mourned his death for years. nelson's column, built in trafalgar square,
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commemorated his sacrifice in stone and bronze. turner painted a highly original re-creation of the decisive moment that claimed lord nelson's life, setting it amid the crushing congestion of towering masts, torn sails and the fog of cannon fire at precariously close quarters. the reviews were good. (reader) "mr. turner... has detailed the death of his hero, while he has suggested the whole of a great naval victory, which we believe has never before been successfully accomplished, if it has been before attempted, in a single picture." (narrator) the napoleonic war ended in 1815 at waterloo. the duke of wellington had called the battle "a damn close run-thing." the fragility of civilization intrigued turner throughout his career. the decline of the carthaginian empire
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depicts the crushing penalty rome inflicted on the carthaginians. the architecture is elegant but the messy dockside suggests the end of a defeated imperial power. the women of vanquished carthage are bidding farewell to their men as they sail towards rome, human spoils of war bound for slavery or death. in 1818, turner was 43. in the twenty years that britain had been at war, he had become a public figure, his reputation based on art and enterprise. the new classes made wealthy by the industrial revolution were eager to buy his works. and he was favored with patronage from landed gentry like walter fawkes, who invited him to stay at his yorkshire estate. one morning at breakfast fawkes asked him to make a drawing that would convey the huge size of a man-of-war. fawkes' grand niece recorded how it was done.
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(reader) "he began by pouring wet paint onto the paper till it was saturated, he tore, he scratched, he scrubbed at it in a kind of frenzy and the whole thing was chaos-- but gradually and as if by magic the lovely ship, with all its exquisite minutia, came into being and by lunchtime the drawing was taken down in triumph." (narrator) with europe at peace, turner was free to travel abroad-- sketching what he saw in notebooks and taking them back to london to use as a basis for his paintings. in 1819 he finally reached italy, the goal of artists throughout europe eager to learn from its history and beauty. it was turner's long held dream to visit the country he knew from claude's paintings. he depicted an idealized italian landscape
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and called it childe harold's pilgrimage, after lord byron's poem. in an attempt to lift the painting to the intellectual stature enjoyed by the romantic poets, turner included a fragment of byron's verse in the exhibition catalogue. (reader) "...and now, fair italy! thou art the garden of the world. even in thy desert what is like to thee? thy very weeds are beautiful, thy waste more rich than other climes' fertility: thy wreck a glory, and thy ruin graced with an immaculate charm which cannot be defaced." (narrator) turner's travels in italy, like so many of his contemporaries, were part of a phenomenon called the grand tour. the artistic and architectural legacies of ancient rome and greece were thought to ennoble the minds that contemplated them. turner recorded their beauty-- the vestiges of power in ruin,
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history frozen in atmospheric splendor, a lost paradise still tinged by myth. he could capture that beauty like no one else which earned the praise of his friend the painter thomas lawrence. (reader) "the subtle harmony of this atmosphere, that wraps everything in its own milky sweetness... can only be rendered, according to my belief, by the beauty of his tones." (narrator) turner first saw the seductive beauty of venice in paintings by the 18th century venetian artist canaletto, a favorite of british collectors. turner's venice from the porch of madonna della salute was designed to appeal to that market. juliet and her nurse, on the other hand, was a breathtaking work of fiction. turner transported shakespeare's characters from verona-- and set them in the lower right-hand corner of a composition that vibrated with the decadent revels
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of venice at carnival time. rendered in luminous tones, figures and fireworks dissolve in the gossamer atmosphere. critics were mystified. (reader) "different parts of venice, thrown higgledy-piggledy together, streaked blue and pink and thrown into a flour tub. poor juliet has been steeped in treacle to make her look sweet, and we feel apprehensive lest the mealy architecture should stick to her petticoat, and flour it... so many absurdities we scarcely stop to ask why julietnd her nurse should be in venice." (narrator) the young john ruskin, who would become england's greatest art critic, disagreed and wrote a passionate defense. (ruskin) "many-colored mists are floating above the distant city, but such mists as you might imagine to be ethereal spirit in this picture ought to be viewed as embodied enchantment, delineated magic." (narrator) at home in england, turner continued to enjoy
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the patronage of the aristocracy. at petworth house in sussex, lord egremont, a curious mixture of rake and intellectual, opened his collection of sculpture and paintings to visiting artists who could come and go as they pleased. he provided turner with a studio. lord egremont commissioned several paintings from turner, including petworth lake. a study for a larger painting, it reveals how turner's use of oils gained from the experimental work he was undertaking in watercolors during the 1820s. turner planned images by laying down broad areas of primary color to denote forms he sought to represent. his persistent use of yellow caught the reviewers' eyes.
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one hostile critic suggested that he suffered from yellow fever. another compared him to a cook with a mania for curry powder. the novel selection of yellow pigments that became available in the 1820s allowed him to create more subtle gradations of light which he put to use in ulysses deriding polyphemus. the taunting of the blind cyclops by mortal ulysses- bathed in the light of apollo's sun-chariot-- was read as an allegory: the triumph of light over ignorance. the sun and the power of light were among turner's most enduring preoccupations, but critics accused him of being "intoxicated with color." (reader) "although the grecian hero has just put out the eye of the furious cyclops that is really no reason why mr. turner should put out the eyes of us harmless critics." ♪
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(narrator) at the beginning of the 1830s, turner was famous, at the height of his powers and intent on dominating his rivals. the royal academy's annual exhibition traditionally included "varnishing days"-- an opportunity for artists to apply the finishing touches to their works as they hung in the academy before the official opening. turner treated this as an almost theatrical opportunity, reworking canvasses like regulus he'd painted years before under the noses of his competitors. (reader) "he had a large palette, nothing on it but a huge lump of flake white; he had two or three biggish tools to work with, and with these he was driving the white into all the hollows, and every part of the surface... the picture gradually became wonderfulleffective, just the effect of brilliant sunshine absorbing everything and throwing a misty haze over every object." (narrator) that aggressively painted sun was part of the story.
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regulus was a roman general captured and tortured by the carthaginians. they cut off his eyelids and forced him to look at the blinding midday sun. in the 1830s, britain's confidence gave way to misgivings about empire, industrialization and inequality. as always, turner considered contemporary events to be fitting subjects. he kept his politics a secret but his distaste for slavery was addressed in slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying-- calling attention to the horrific practice of slave ships lightening the load of their human cargo in the face of a typhoon. ♪ (narrator) the burning of the houses of parliament in 1834
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gave turner one of his great subjects-- the destruction of a national symbol of unity and the horrors and agonies that accompanied it was the stuff of tabloids. turner made it the stuff of drama. sequences of watercolors show he viewed the catastrophe from a variety of locations-- liquid splotches of red, grey, and blue fight dramatically with each other. this contest between hot and cold colors would explode violently in the oil paintings he exhibited. his 1835 version is viewed from the south bank of the thames amid an immense crowd of spectators who have gathered to watch their seat of government consumed by a wall of flames. that combination of observation tempered with passionate artistry flowered again in turner's 1839 the fighting "temeraire" tugged to her last berth to be broken up,
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many wept to see the temeraire, a ship that had stood with nelson at the battle of trafalgar, at the mercy of a steam driven tug dragging it to the scrap yard. turner would never lend or sell the picture, which he called "my darling." turner may have regretted the passing of that era but he was fascinated by the steam age. keelmen heaving in coals by moonlight was painted for an industrialist. but it can also be seen as an elegy for the honest and hard working labor that fed the engines of the steam-driven empire. it was praised for its extraordinary light-- described by one observer as "neither night nor day." throughout the 1830s and into the 1840s, turner produced works with expressive brushwork and an indistinctness that baffled critics. (reader) "to speak of these works as pictures,
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would be an abuse of language." (narrator) snow storm - steamboat off a harbor's mouth, evokes the furious force of nature through waves and sprays that swirl around the storm-tossed ship, creating a powerful vortex, a compositional device that turner had devised years earlier. the painting was dismissed as "soapsuds and white wash." turner's behavior didn't help-- the artist, now in his 60s, preposterously claimed to have had himself tied to the mast for four hours in freezing weather to observe and sketch the effects. increasingly scruffy and eccentric, he moved into a house in chelsea with a widow named sophia booth. courting anonymity, he was known to the locals as admiral booth. turner's response to criticism of the blurriness of his late works was to say that "atmosphere is my style."
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the novelist william makepeace thackeray noted that in rain, steam and speed, turner's epic depiction of the modern railway-- (reader) "he has made a picture with real rain, behind which is real sunshine, and you expect a rainbow every minute... all these wonders are performed with means not less wonderful than the effects are. the rain... is composed of dabs of dirty putty slapped on to the canvas with a trowel; the sunshine scintillates out of very thick, smeary lumps of chrome yellow." (narrator) john ruskin, the passionate boy defender of juliet and her nurse, was now a young man and convinced that turner was the great english painter. he bought turner's paintings-- including slavers-- and wrote essays in praise of them. (ruskin) "the noblest sea that turner ever painted... the fire of sunset falls along the trough of the sea,
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dying it with an awful but glorious light, the intense and lurid splendor which burns like gold and bathes like blood." (narrator) in 1843 ruskin began to publish modern painters, which argued for turner's inclusion among the ranks of the greatest artists in history. turner continued to travel compulsively until the late 1840s when his health no longer allowed it. a series of watercolors came out of a trip to switzerland in 1841 that represent his supreme achievement in the medium that launched his career. they're marked by explosions of color and a poetic haziness that obscures topographical detail. these large works, which turner charged hefty prices for, proclaimed the visual impact of watercolor as the equal of oils. but venice captured his imagination
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more than any other place in his last decade. in 1844 he painted approach to venice. the picture is only incidentally about the boating party making their way into the city. turner's interest is in suffusing water and sky with color at twilight and capturing its effect on the distant city's skyline. ruskin was spellbound by its beauty. (ruskin) "it was, i think, when i first saw it... the most perfectly beautiful piece of color of all that i have seen produced by human hands." (narrator) shade and darkness - evening of the deluge, painted in 1843, is more about light than a biblical account of noah and the ark. turner's light produces a mystical bent that shows up in several late canvases. layer after layer of pigment,
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applied to create the vortex of mist and air churning angrily around the blinding light, conjures up the elemental forces of the cosmos. the abstract beauty of turner's late canvases that dissolve into light are especially apparent in some of his unfinished paintings like norham castle, sunrise. returning to a subject he had painted years earlier, he advanced his composition to a point at which the subject is barely apparent. its unfinished state shows how he could stretch the poetic possibilities of color and technique to the threshold of abstraction. even as turner developed his watercolor technique to the level of his oil paintings, he pushed oil painting to the point of watercolor's expressive fluidity, with pigments applied freely and colors that seem to bleed one into the other.
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turner died at his home in chelsea in december of 1851. he lay in state in his central london gallery and was buried, at his request, beside the grave of joshua reynolds in st paul's cathedral. he left a fortune equivalent to eight million dollars to friends, relatives and charities, leaving many of his paintings to the nation. the impact of turner's painting on later artists began well before his death. staffa, fingal's cave became the first of his paintings to arrive in america. there are more of his works in the u.s. than anywhere but britain. he influenced american painters such as frederic edwin church... and thomas moran, who became known as "the american turner." french painters, including claude monet, were also intrigued by him. monet saw an exhibition of turner's works in london
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in the early 1870s and noted with approval that the english artist "painted with his eyes open." the impressionists admired his ability to capture luminous atmospheric effects. by the end of the 19th century, j.m.w. turner's dream was realized-- landscape painting was elevated to a level unthinkable without the contributions he had made in fifty years of painting.
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