so many paintings, so little time

Mr. Leigh’s Mr. Turner

In Uncategorized on December 23, 2014 at 11:59 am
J.M.W. Turner, The Slave Ship (1840). Oil on canvas. 90.8 × 122.6 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

J.M.W. Turner, The Slave Ship (1840). Oil on canvas. 90.8 × 122.6 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 – 1851) was painting recently on West Houston St. in New York, at the Angelika Film Center. The repainter has never been a huge fan of Turner’s canvases. Rather thinly painted, for me they often drift away, even while I recognize his work as a notable early precursor to abstraction, and both distinct and unusually evocative of the sea. Despite this ambivalence, a painting of his, “The Slave Ship,” appears repainted in one of the repainter’s paintings (more of which below).

Before seeing “Mr. Turner,” Mike Leigh’s ravishingly photographed biopic just released here, I had little knowledge of the painter’s biography. I can see why the politically progressive 71 year-old Leigh chose Turner as his subject.

Mr.TurnerStill

Surely he was drawn to Turner’s commitment to his art, his rigor and intellectual curiosity, and his adventurous drive to love and be loved even later in life. Though at-times repugnant, Turner captivates because Leigh creates a real living person on screen. There’s barely a narrative to speak of; in fact, I found myself marveling at being so compelled by the dramatic construction of the film. It’s almost as if we happened to find ourselves in the rooms of Turner’s life: his studio in what seems like just an ordinary room in his London house, his bedroom, the bed and breakfast in Margate where he stayed from time to time to study the sea, the galleries at the Royal Academy. Though one may wonder how in the world Leigh knows what went on in them, one never doubts that he does.

In the course of our privileged presence in these private spaces, we meet the key players in Turner’s life: his spurned, bitter  lover, the aunt of his housekeeper, and the two daughters Turner had with her; the faithful, submissive housekeeper, towards

Turner and his father, still from "Mr. Turner," a film by Mike Leigh

Turner and his father, still from “Mr. Turner,” a film by Mike Leigh

whom Turner is at best indifferent; his dear loving father, presented as the probable source of Turner’s immense artistic confidence; a late love. Pain-in-the-ass painter Benjamin Haydon periodically reappears hounding his successful friend for financial aid. There are exchanges of camaraderie—and violent confrontation—with fellow painters, among them Clarkson Stanfield another marine painter from whom the repainter once borrowed a work.

Clarkson Frederick Stanfield, "A Dutch Dogger Carrying Away her Sprit; On the Dogger Bank," 1846, collection Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Clarkson Frederick Stanfield, “A Dutch Dogger Carrying Away her Sprit; On the Dogger Bank,” 1846, collection Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Ken Aptekar, "THE WHOLE PICTURE," diptych, oil on wood, sandblasted glass, bolts, 30" x 60", after Clarkson Stanfield,

Ken Aptekar, “THE WHOLE PICTURE,” diptych, oil on wood, sandblasted glass, bolts, 30″ x 60″, after Clarkson Stanfield, “A Dutch Dogger Carrying Away her Sprit; On the Dogger Bank,” (above)

Then there are satisfying scenes ridiculing a pompous critic (Ruskin), Turner’s witnessing the painful derision of his detractors, sales negotiations successful and otherwise with collectors in Turner’s private red-walled showroom (“careful, three steps down!”), and, of course, energetic painting and sketching. Remarkably, they all add up to the most sympathetic, ordinary, and hero-worship free portrayal the repainter has ever seen of the artist-as-small-businessman, merely and utterly gripped by his unique project of painting.

Ken Aptekar, "Portrait of Susan Whitehead," 2010, oil on wood, sandblasted glass, bolts, four panels 60" x 60" overall

Ken Aptekar, “Portrait of Susan Whitehead,” 2010, oil on wood, sandblasted glass, bolts, four panels 60″ x 60″ overall

For one of the portraits I made for a 2010 exhibition, Recent Portraits, at the Graham Gallery in New York, I used Turner’s “The Slave Ship,” along with Van Gogh’s “The Ravine.” The form of the text in this “portrait,” was inspired by a comment made to me by my portrait subject, Susan Whitehead. When her father called to ask how she was doing, and she began to answer, he would cut her off with, “just give me the headlines.” During a videotaped interview (jump to 1:46 in the videotape) with Whitehead in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where I had asked her which painting she’d like to take home, she was drawn to Turner’s darkly sinister painting, “The Slave Ship,” and Van Gogh’s twisty torturous “The Ravine.” Turner painted his abolitionist canvas after learning that the captain of a British slave ship had ordered 133 slaves to be thrown overboard so that insurance payments could be collected.

Advertisements
  1. Just give me the headlines. I have no time for the build-up. Hurry up. Make it short. Got it?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s