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Arts & Culture

Simon Schama's Power Of Art: Turner

Internationally acclaimed scholar and writer Simon Schama with J.M.W. Turner's "Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On)," 1840 (Oil on canvas).
Neville Kidd, ©BBC
Internationally acclaimed scholar and writer Simon Schama with J.M.W. Turner's "Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On)," 1840 (Oil on canvas).

Airs Thursday, June 3, 2010 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV

Simon Schama On Turner

"In 1840 in London, an international convention of the Great and Good was planned to express righteous indignation against slavery in the United States. Turner, initiated into the cause many years before by his patron, Walter Fawkes, wanted to have his say in paint. So how does he do it? By being a thorn in the side of self congratulation. He reaches back 60 years to resurrect one of the most shameful episodes in the history of the British Empire when 132 Africans - men, women and children, their hands and feet fettered - were thrown overboard into the shark infested waters of the Caribbean. And Turner has drowned you in this moment, pulled you into this terrifying chasm in the ocean, drenched you in this bloody light - exactly the hue you sense in your blood filled optic nerves when you close your eyes in blinding sunlight. Though almost all of his critics believed that the painting represented an all time low in Turner's reckless disregard for the rules of art, it was in fact his greatest triumph in the sculptural carving of space."

In 1840, Joseph Mallord William (J.M.W) Turner was 65, an old man with sinking spirits, often sick, facing the bleak sea. Turner was off somewhere, voyaging way beyond any kind of painting the world had ever seen, tempests of burning color, forms that had no discernible shape or line, subjects that imploded in sprays of brilliant oil, or swelling and ebbing washes of watercolor. He could get away with these wild atmospherics when the subject was topical or patriotic -"The Burning of the Houses of Parliament" or "The Fighting Temeraire." But he was too brave to play it safe and in too much of a hurry, being old and frail.

When Turner died, 60 of the great roiling seascapes were left unsold in his studio. But "Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On)" belonged to John Ruskin, who had been given it as a present by his father. In 1843, Ruskin published his hymn of praise to Turner called "Modern Painters." Turner had anticipated the great 19th-century question posed by the invention of photography. If the camera could now make two-dimensional facsimiles of nature, of people, of places, what work did that leave for art? Turner's great nebulae of color gave one answer, but there was another to be had.

Freed from the job of describing the mere look of the world, art could now go to the heart of the matter, the subjective vision of our mind's eye. Turner was the first true modern. Modern were his tempests of paint, modern his blown-up cloudy forms. Ultra-modern was his determination to tackle dangerous subjects - slave traders who threw bodies overboard to be rid of incriminating evidence when pursued by the Royal Navy, or (as in the notorious case of the ship "Zong" in 1783) to collect on the insurance for "lost property" (the sick and the dying). For Turner, art was not a placebo. It needed to wreak havoc like the storm, to have the force of an avalanche or an inferno. Great painting, his painting, needed to risk disaster, the better to communicate it.

Watch video excerpts from the TV series online.

Video Excerpt: Interview With Simon Schama