Art & Chaos

William Poundstone on Art and Chaos


I walked through the Getty Museum’s “J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free” thinking about a more recent picture. It was the digital photo of a dress that set the Internet buzzing last Thursday. Some saw the dress as white and gold, others as blue and black. It split couples—for Kim Kardashian it was #whiteandgold; for Kanye West it was #blueandblack. Kanye was right, it turned out, when less ambiguous photos of the dress turned up and themselves went viral. The dress came to mind in the Getty show with Turner’s Peace—Burial at Sea (1842), on loan from the Tate. Critics objected that Turner had painted the white sails black. Turner’s Twitter-worthy comeback: “I only wish I had any color to make them blacker.”

The relativity of visual perception is the ultimate subject matter of Turner’s late years. Blue Rigi or Red Rigi?—it depends on the lighting. In the 1840s, as in the Tumblr age, ambiguity is a polarizing thing.

You’ve probably heard the psychophysical explanations for the dress. Its wearer was standing in front of a blazingly sunlit background, overexposed in the photo. The picture lacks the usual visual cues that would indicate whether the dress was itself brightly lit or in shadow. As a meme, the dress photo is fundamentally about glare and lack of visual cues. Both were fundamental to Turner’s late work. His painting Regulus looks straight into the sun, a gimmick he took from Claude Lorrain. No one can paint the sun in any “realistic” sense. What ought to be a point of white-hot incandescence must instead be represented by a blob of white pigment. Turner implies the sun’s brilliance by flooding much of his canvas with white and gold. Like the dress photo, Regulus is burnt out, subject to a finite dynamic range. The details establishing the subject and perspective are relegated to the margins.

Writing of Regulus, an 1837 Spectator critic found ”just the reverse of Claude; instead of the repose of beauty—the soft serenity and mellow light of an Italian scene—here all is glare, turbulence, and uneasiness. The only way to be reconciled to the picture is to look at it from as great a distance as the width of the gallery will allow of, and then you see nothing but a burst of sunlight.”

Turner was not an abstractionist, a misreading that the Tate-Getty-Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco-organized exhibition gently rebuts. The subject matter mattered, not just to his patrons but to Turner himself. (Regulus was the scheming Roman general whose punishment was to have his eyelids cut off and be blinded by the Tunisian sun.) But the mature Turner’s main visual interest was the aspects of a view—glare, gloom, masses of color—that are perceived a split second before the brain manages to make sense of it all. Watercolors such as Turner’s Bedroom in the Palazzo Giustinian and Venice: Santa Maria della Salute, Night Scene with Rockets (below) have been called “abstract” yet are essentially naturalistic. They are like what one sees when waking up in a dark room in an unfamiliar city: a reality in which dim forms momentarily resist interpretation.

This interest in the subjectivity of vision may be Turner’s most authentic connection to modernism. It recalls the tale of Kandinsky being enraptured by an indecipherable painting he saw from a distance (a Monet Haystacks, it turned out). It is in the spirit of André Breton’s surrealist decree: “Anything that can delay the categorization of beings or ideas—that can, in a word, maintain ambiguity—has my full approval.”