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April 27, 2005

Turner Whistler Monet at Tate Britain - Richard D. North finds the Chelsea Flower Show of Art Shows

Posted by Richard D. North

Turner Whistler Monet
Tate Britain, London
10th February - 15th May 2005
Daily 10am - 5.50pm

Richard D. North's Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence has just been published by the Social Affairs Unit.

This huge show is both uplifting and lowering. It is absolutely mobbed, and the reason must surely be that there is a mass a swamp, one might say of Monets to delight the middle-of-the-road eye. There: your reviewer's prejudices are out. You have before you a snobbish disdain of the easy, epitomised by the pretty. We are in Chelsea Flower Show territory. This is, however, also the uplifting bit: to be in the midst of a large, well-behaved middle class crowd and to realise that it still produces people who speak nicely, are vaguely in pursuit of spiritual enrichment and believe that art provides it.

The crushing bit is the lurking thought that the middle class remains cheerfully philistine, even as it does its art-loving. In short, the largest proportion of the paintings on show at the Tate's TurnerWhistlerMonet (the names are run together on the catalogue's cover like those of a post-merger accountancy outfit) are seriously open to the charge of being chocolate box schlock.

On the last leg of its three-country hops, this show has come home. It is after all mostly, and most seriously, about paintings of the Thames. There is some Venice work, too, perhaps because that's the one city which all three painters also painted in, and is in any case highly aquatic. It's water too which provides the linking rationale that lets some French Monets in: his French rivers and lakes are, one suspects, the commercial stars of the show. Even this undemanding market could hardly be expected to be seduced by another collection of Monet's bloody lilies.

Even a devoted Turnerite can sometimes find the washiest of his big canvases a bit wearying, and the wettest of the later Monets in the Tate show look to this eye as though they are collapsing into the bad sort of Turnerism.

Naturally, it's best if we can clothe our aesthetic tastes in something like an intellectual case. So here goes.

To stand a chance of being serious, art shows need to be making an argument of the "this because of that" kind, or the "and this is better than that" kind. Here, TWM seems awfully thin. We are told that Monet and Whistler admired each other and Monet apparently came to London partly because of work by Whistler. Monet "would have viewed" Turner in the National Gallery. And Whistler certainly admired Turner. Who wouldn't? After that, it all gets a bit murky (as, Lord knows, after about 1880 the paintings do). We can't plot a track from Turner to Whistler and Monet, except to say that at some point Turner's intensely suggestive vagueness gets taken up as the very purpose of painting. National vanity makes us say that Turner is the ur-Impressionist, and no harm in that, and it might lead us to file paternity suits on behalf of any of the painterly brats that saw his work, or saw the work of those who saw his. And we can't say much about the relationship between Monet and Whistler, in the sense of wondering which owed what to the other.

To take a small but pertinent detour. Downstream at Tate Modern, a fabulous surprise awaits. August Strindberg's oil paintings [reviewed for the Social Affairs Unit by Christie Davies] are an absolute knock-out. Alastair Sooke tells us in the Daily Telegraph that Turner was Strindberg's favourite painter and that on a visit to London "he probably saw" Turner's work.

A curator would have been perfectly free to do a Turner/Strindberg show. But Strindberg's line of descent from the master is at best ragged and maybe positively ripped. One can perhaps claim that Turner invites the talented to take any leap of technique they can imagine (or any leap of the imagination their technique will allow). But Strindberg's approach does just seem blindingly original. His marine painting is not allegorical as Turner's often is. Strindberg seems to be swimming in the sea he paints: its waves are up and at him. They might drown you, but simply because they are menacingly, wet and hard enough for the job. They are no bigger than they need to be: just powerful. The sky is closing in on him, the clouds have already drenched or soon will. Constable and Turner can paint weather, for sure. The amazing thing about Strindberg is that he seems to live it. Some of the effect may arise from Strindberg's use of a knife to heap and carve his paint. I can't recall a more revelatory series of paintings of the sea, and perhaps the most peculiar thing is that they are mostly on such a small scale.

Back at Millbank, we were too crowded to bother with reading and listening to stuff. But tranquillity brought the catalogue's text. It does not exactly over-egg the TWM inter-connectedness, and there is some discussion of other important Impressionists. Rather, it bravely finds "echoes" and "responses" and generally finds every opportunity to be suggestive of connections, since it dare hardly admit that there may be more coincidence (the Thames thing) than art history bringing the show together. (Talking of coincidence: Whistler's three initials can be tucked into the Turner's first three. But that does not mean he is subsumed by his forerunner.)

Actually, if you tipped out the later, mushier Monets (the Giverny scenes and the 19th Century tea-towel renditions of the Palace of Westminster), you might have rather a good argument. This would be made to a much smaller audience, and might run like this. Look at Turner and you see a painter wrestling with vagueness and sharpness at the same time; he wants to convey both attitude and moodiness. Take the painting of the fire at the Houses of Parliament: isn't it both dramatic and meditative, sharply real and ethereal? Isn't that why it's so good at showing the beauty in destruction? Isn't this exactly the discussion which Turner knew from the Enlightenment and its exploration of the Picturesque and the Sublime? We could then go on and see Whistler and Monet wrestling with the same technical issues and themes in their paintings of the 1870s. The best of the paintings by all these men then were still largely about the crashing together of the industrial, urban and squalid and the natural world. They are about vigour as well as loveliness. In them there is often a surprising degree of delineation along with the mistiness.

This point is especially true of Whistler's nocturnes: they look soothing and goofy, but their point is restlessness and alertness. They are about people and places which are not snugly asleep, but are astir. This is truly Turner territory, and as much in its conflicted interest in the sublime loveliness of the technocratic as in its "impressionism". If we drew the line there, we would have a real commonality of work between T, W and M. But of course we couldn't then have the later, chocolate box, Monets with their edgeless, line-free guffiness. We would at a stroke chuck out the rustic and the pretty. And it is fair to suppose we would lose most of the audience too.

Or we could go further, and say that in the 1870s W and M were doing splendidly inventive fugues on the T themes, but then the Frenchman goes off the rails and descends into what we can find a little tedious in T. That way we could leave the later Monets in, but disparage them. Not, perhaps, the best marketing.

There is a further failure of the show's arguments, in so far as we get them. It bangs on about the smoke and smog of the period, and the dangers which lurked in the Thames' water (from a painter's point of view the water hasn't changed for centuries). The texts don't say so explicitly, because it would be patent nonsense, and yet the unwary probably believe that the painters were making studies of pollution as a sort of statement about it, and perhaps even as a campaigning statement. And yet we know from James Hamilton's Tate publication, Turner and the Scientists, that the artist was tensely intrigued by every aspect of industry, including what we call its pollution. Pollution was seen as both a sign of progress and as a blight; it was quite differently - capable of producing beauty as well as congested chests.

There is a more general point. It is hard to recall now, but people used to take grim satisfaction in the underside of modern life. Smokestacks, gin-soaked spit-and-sawdust pubs, docks and lightermen, grime-encrusted pipework, gaunt cranes wresting cargoes: the uncouth, the unreconstructed, these were all setting nineteenth century painters alight. The Tate's blurb writers seem to recoil from all this, but then they probably buy their water bottled.

Actually, some of the most exciting things mankind has ever seen have been grossly polluting, or actual pollution. As Turner and Joseph Wright had found, there's nothing quite like a smelter's furnace: if volcanoes were beautiful, and everyone knew they were, so were these. The most beautiful things I have ever seen include the giant Huta Lenina plant near Katovice (at its most murderously glorious in the Soviet era) and the towering infernos of Kuwait's oilfields when Saddam fired them in 1991. Even the amazing gloom of smoke-laden Kuwait was at least exceptionally eerie, and I was interested in it, just as tourists and residents rather enjoyed London's pea-soupers (as the TWM properly text notes to have been the case, in the midst of its rather squeamish remarks).

All in all, then, TWM shows us both lovely and dreary things in an unhelpful framework. And the greatest single surprise, and one of the greatest pleasures, are some of the least spectacular, especially small, Turners and Whistler's neat, factual, inspired drawings. And the best single painting is perhaps Monet's Pool of London, or his The Thames Below Westminster, both 1871: both pre-date his fall into prettiness.

Richard D. North's Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence has just been published by the Social Affairs Unit.


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