the Sky Cult of J.M.W. Turner, R.A.

landscape art as science fiction

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Lawrence Russell

The Fifth Plague of Egypt | Stonehenge | Staffa: Fingal's Cave | Rain, Steam, Speed | Napoleon

§ Even though Turner (1775-1851) is considered a great Romantic painter with neoclassical asides, it's generally agreed that he anticipated much of the 20th Century art sensibility: Impressionism, Expressionism, Futurism... and by his mystical evocations of history and sky worship, Science Fiction.

Turner was a Professor of Perspective at the Royal Academy, was trained in architectural draughting before he dedicated himself to landscape painting. Initially he gained attention as a Marine painter because of his upbringing on the Thames estuary, especially in the town of Margate. It's through this architectural ability to render ships and large buildings with geometrical precision that you see his science. You see it in his symbolist paintings with their visionary poetics and other worldly transports. The fictional ecstasy and sense of prophecy is evident within the geometry of dream and myth as seen in many of his works, both neoclassical and modern. While reportage of a scene and its material elements by preliminary sketching was certainly one of his methods, these sketches were often just templates for poetic trance expression.

He wrote poetry, used quotes from it to title many of his drawings and paintings, although few of his peers felt his poetry was any good. But his grasp of visual metaphor is often sublime. He paints what he sees, paints what he dreams, paints what lies beyond the vanishing point.

In 1968 the German-Swiss researcher Erich von Daniken published his slim volume of heresy, Chariots of the Gods? (subtitled Unsolved Mysteries of the Past) in which he put forward the notion that the large monument sites in the Nile Valley, the Americas and elsewhere are spaceports or cosmological markers for the Gods, who were visitors (and sometimes colonizers) from the stars. While institutional archaeologists scoffed -- and continue to scoff -- the fact remains that von Daniken's book is well-written and often challenges the prevailing orthodoxy with difficult questions, i.e. if the pyramids of Egypt were constructed by legions of slaves propelling the (25-80 tonne) blocks into position over rollers made from avenues of felled palms, where did all these trees come from? How resilient is a palm trunk anyway? Etc. While it's true that von Daniken raises more questions than anyone can answer and imposes today's imagery (spacemen) on yesterday's to suit his argument, it really doesn't matter if Chariots of the Gods? is a reasoned "meta-faction" (or meta-fiction) or not, but what matters is its imaginative power as a scholarly work of Science Fiction.

Chariots of the Gods? is a New Age classic, as is much of the work of Turner. It doesn't matter if his painting "The 5th Plague of Egypt" (1808) is mere Biblical illustration or has any archaeological truth, it's the brilliant dramatization of mythology and science that makes us believers. In this version a cluster of pyramids is lit by an elemental lightning storm, one of Turner's favorite lighting devices for visionary effect and apocalyptic possibility. In the foreground lies a dead horse with a dead naked woman, who may or may not have been its rider. Nearby two robed figures respond to the ugly scene -- the 5th plague was a disease that killed livestock and humans -- in the usual religious postures. One, hands clasped, kneeling in despair; the other, arms raised, standing like a prophet trying to channel the electrical energy into the body of the loved one in a Lazurian attempt at resurrection.

If this was a literal translation of the 9th Plague -- Darkness -- then the figure would be Moses.

Turner: 5th Plague of Egypt

In truth, the foreground is European. The horse should be a camel, the woman darker [although the Egyptian nobility did have horses]. Turner often mixed his metaphors, such as stealing Mediterranean trees for his neoclassical revisions of the British landscape. In this instance, the horse and the woman provide a high-identification point for entry into the fantastic landscape, which was an alien scape for the majority of viewers in the early 1800s. The woman would be a model he sketched at the Royal Academy's Still Life studio, which he frequently visited. He sold his oil The Golden Bough (1834) with the nude sketch figure pasted in, so it eventually fell off; he fixed the problem for the owner (the horse dealer Robert Vernon), although this is one reason why his water colors are considered more successful than his oils. They last.

Vaguely erotic, the dead woman provides the same contradictory emotional imagery as does the corpse of a shapely woman in today's pulp thriller. The voyeur is hooked, will then engage the story further. The sense of scale might cause him to pause, as the distant buildings behind the pyramids might be too large (or the pyramids too small), have a vague Renaissance Italy feel. No wonder Turner's architectural drawings were described by a contemporary as "dangerous models of excellence".

The real allure of this picture is in its elemental vision, the tonal power of a world with an invisible sun. It's said that by 1820 Turner was "no longer painting views but visions" but this is probably true of his work right from the beginning. In music terms he was atonal. He was always willing to void realism in favour of symbolism (consider the religious shaft of light that fractures the ship in Peace - Burial At Sea [oil, 1842] or his sea monster personification in Sunrise with Sea Monsters [oil, 1845]. Here, the death-ray light shafting in slants from the overcast completes the grim mise en scene, and you're left wondering about the value of human life in this alien graveyard. Yet the mystery of the architecture endures, and the fascination of this mystery will draw explorers to seek its source regardless of the risks.

There are a number of versions of this picture -- different skies, different pyramids, different colorings -- and this one, an 1808 engraving, is so dark it seems to use the 9th Plague, Darkness, as mentioned in the Book of Exodus, as an auxiliary effect. Hell is another planet, and we remember it because the Gods mated with our women. Nonsense? Visions are the stuff of prophecy, and science couldn't do without them. Here -- as with all great Art -- Turner forces us towards a cosmological solution.

§ If you were ever fortunate enough to see Stonehenge in its solitary glory on Salisbury Plain before it was fenced off, became a New Age shrine, you'll know immediately why Turner (and others) was moved to sketch it several times over the course of his career. The unimpeded light, with its unshaded clarity is almost Italianate at times, at others infused with the unmistakable pagan power that caused men and women to prostrate themselves before the holy orb in worship. The giant megalithic stones personify this, and while their ultimate raison d'etre is baffling, you intuitively accept their reason for being.

In 1963 a British astronomer Dr. Gerald Hawkins stunned the archaeology world with a letter to the science journal Nature in which he asserted that Stonehenge was a sophisticated Neolithic computer which was used as an eclipse predictor. His findings were derided by the institutional archaeologists of the day, even after he followed up with a detailed cosmological analysis in Stonehenge Decoded (1965), another book destined to become a New Age favorite, especially among those inclined towards Sky Cult solutions. Archaeologists, for the most part weak in math, and unable to properly dispute Hawkins' algebra (he used an IBM mainframe), were left trapped in a cul de sac of their own conservative self-interest and stuttering innuendo.

Enter Fred Hoyle, the Astronomer Royal, who -- skeptical at first -- was able to confirm the Hawkins thesis without a computer, using logarithmic tables for his calculations. Essentially Hoyle confirmed what Hawkins said: Stonehenge I (3000-2500 BC) was used and could still be used to predict eclipses of the sun and moon on an 18.61 year cycle. Less certain was the purpose of Stonehenge II & III when the tooled stones were transported from Wales, as their positional geometries weren't as easily reconciled into the astronomical machine logic of Stonehenge I.

Here Hoyle speculates that maybe the ancients lost their predictive art over the following 1,000 years, and tried to recover it by raising the megaliths of II and III. He also wonders if the prediction of eclipses led to the notion of the "invisible god" and the collapse of sun worship. Interesting... although of no consequence to J.M.W. Turner, R.A., for whom the science of light was everything, whose natural born pantheism was carried to the grave. His famous last words from his death bed were, "The sun is God."

A von Daniken-type solution to Stonehenge III would be to view it as a cargo-cult, a brute representation of an interstellar spacecraft or -- following the logic of gravestones -- totems for the alien visitors who really built and used Stonehenge I. Henges II and III would then be markers to evoke and herald the return of the gods, and as such become part of the pagan ritual performed during the summer and winter solstices. Celestial mechanics become religion, an earth zodiac (topographical starmap) hijacked by the Druids for burial purposes (transmigration of the soul) or possibly ritual sacrifice.

Thus the pagan zeitgeist intensifies.

Turner: Stonehenge

< watercolor at the Tate >

Consider Turner's 1827 water color version of Stonehenge. At first glance, there's nothing scientific about it, unless you can see perspective and shape in chaos. The stone works are so crude they could be mistaken for a failed sheep pen, and the only hint of something amiss is the lightning strike that grounds itself into a sagging megalith, appearing to topple it in a Babylonian blow from the heavens. The sun is concealed, except for its electromagnetic attack, and the evil beauty of its green and yellow luminosity is a veil that moves with the impunity of radiation through the massive stone circle. Once again, it's Turner becoming transcendental with the elements, interacting with the symphony of Nature.

Yet the foreground reveals the politics and the metaphysics. The sheep, the eternal metaphor for the sublimely dumb... blithely grazing as if blind and deaf to the holocaust, even though at least eight of them lie dead from lightning strikes. And the most brutal stroke of all is in the bottom right, where a dog howls at the storm beside a stricken shepherd, who lies on his back like a rag doll, blasted from above by the pagan power of the solar assault. The 'Good Shepherd' goes down, despite Christ and any reward for any Christian duty. He is the sacrifice. The apostasy is as obvious as it is concealed.

Turner was a bit of a reformer, although by no means a republican. The symbolism of the dead shepherd could be an unconscious expression with greater significance than the technical trick that it is. He frequently used a dead figure in the foreground: the nude female in the Fifth Plague of Egypt, Admiral Nelson in Trafalgar (although he might be not quite dead), the shepherd in Stonehenge, etc etc. Sometimes the corpse is concealed from us (as in Frosty Morning, 1813), but we know it's there; mostly, though, it's in plain sight like a medical cadaver dropped from the mother ship.

Stonehenge... science fiction? What else could it possibly be?

An 1827 water color expresses it another way:

Turner: Stonehenge 1827

< more details at the Tate >

You think, this must have been an extremely risky expression for a member of the Royal Academy because of its topographical minimalism, and the child-like simplicity of its method. The personification of the aerial mist, the cloud hallucinated as a threatening proto-human monster above a pathetic stone circle that looks more like a herd of supplicants, small and trivial against a barren horizon... evocation of the alien predator, indeed.

The economy of style suggests an incomplete William Blake painting.

*see also Sunrise With Sea Monsters

§ Sir Joseph Banks the botanist renamed the Staffa sea cave as Fingal, borrowing from McPherson's controversial poem Ossian three or four years after Boswell & Johnson's night time row-by of the island in October 1773. Staffa gets its name from the Norsemen, who admired the basalt pilasters as being similar to the vertical posts supporting their longhouses. Staffa was part of the ancient Kingdom of Dalriada (Dal Riata, 6th & 7th centuries), which was a archipelago consisting of the Inner Hebrides & coastal Morven, plus a large part of Ulster (Northern Ireland) coincidental with today's Co. Antrim. Staffa is connected to the famous Ulster landmark known as the Giant's Causeway as part of the same Paleocene basalt flow formed 60 million years ago.


Daniell: Fingal's Cave

William Daniell

Geometric fracturing known as 'joint block spalling'. Or so geologists say.

In 1831 Turner visited Scotland as part of a project he was doing with Sir Walter Scott, and took the opportunity to visit the Isle of Mull. Taking the paddle steamer The Maid of Morven he was able to visit both the monastic isle of Iona (the graveyard of Irish, Nordic, and Scottish kings, including MacBeth) and Staffa, see the legendary cave for himself. Despite the rough weather and a heavy surge, Turner was part of a small party that was able to land on the rocky shore, follow the narrow path into the cave.

If you've been there, you'll know that it's about 150 feet long, perhaps 70 high from the surface of the water to the ceiling and has a strange acoustic made by the reverberated heaving and sucking of the waves as they enter and withdraw. The architecture looks tooled, although geologists assure us it isn't. And if it is, for what purpose? A secret Roman berth for their northern explorations? A primitive monastery for mystics dedicated to the Second Sight? Or does it reach so far back you can only go to another planet or dimension to find its architect?

Turner: Staffa (Fingal's Cave)

Turner was the first of the major artists to incorporate machinery into his work, and in painting Staffa he couldn't resist including the steamer he arrived on. And while he made many sketches of the inside of the cave and the entrance, he chose to hide the dramatic geometries of its hexagonal colonnades by adopting the long view, where the stormy flow of the ocean spray, the tumbling cloud wall and the arching black smoke from the funnel of the steamer make the boat the real subject, not the cave of the poets. The composition is excellent, though, as the smoke mirrors the shape of the cave, thereby invoking an analogy of ancient and modern. And in keeping with his solar paganism, he has the sun breaking through the prismatic veils above the horizon. You wonder how the sun can be here, as the point-of-view is from the south-west (if you're looking out from inside the cave, you're looking at Iona, due south), so even by cheating on the perspective, this can only be a sunrise.

Once again, the fiction imperative overrides the topographical accuracy. Possibly Turner thought that as others such as William Daniell had already produced architectural views that he should stick to the landscape panorama, abstract himself into the mystic. The confined space of the cave grotto and its crushing plethora of angles isn't really his thing. Turner is really an artist of the large space, whether adding to it or subtracting from it. His work is horizonal, perhaps because much of his childhood in Margate was spent staring out to sea.

The science of wooden architecture has given way to iron and steel. Magic is no longer the wind but steam. This is clearly evident in Turner's famous painting The Fighting Temeraire (1838) where the man o' war that saved the flagship Victory at Trafalgar is being towed up river by a smaller paddle steamer to Beatson's wrecking yard. This is science. So it's not only about the death of a warship but also the death of neo-classicism. As Turner embraces the machine, he disengages from the old order.

One of the last usages of the Temeraire was as a prison ship in Devon. Later it was anchored off Sheerness, where Turner would've seen it on his beach rambles. He had sketched it, of course, while doing his Trafalgar research on the flagship Victory and other aspects of the battle back in 1805.

The Fighting Temeraire

Turner: The Fighting Temeraire (1838)

Turner: The Fighting Temeraire

§ 1844. Rain, Steam, Speed. This is Futurism before Marinetti ever thought of such a thing in his Manifesto of 1909. "We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed," he proclaims as if he's just come from the gallery having seen Turner's celebrated study of motion within a static context, that is, the rectangular picture frame. Science has now made it possible for people en masse to move at speeds previously only experienced by diving eagles; and within a hundred years, people would be moving at the speed of sound. The work is prophetic not only in its technical execution, but also for its compression of Time. Like a ghost horse from the battlefield doomed to carry the skeleton of its rider for eternity, the locomotive is the new engine of death. In the blur of the action, the hare trying to escape being rundown by the infernal machine almost escapes our notice. But it's there, and will almost certainly be roadkill, an accidental victim of the hunt.

Turner: Rain, Steam, Speed

< get it from the Tate Gallery shop >

Again, this is the familiar Turner motif, the coffin key that opens so many of his pictures. The sensorial beauty of life is both being and nothingness, even if the message is disguised as a joke.

The locomotive's innards are exposed and illuminated as if the machine is a cyborg animal or human parody, another Turner monster morphing from the elements. For the time, a marvellous feat of mechanical and civil engineering, yet its elegance is elusive, its comic face as primitive and disturbing as that of a mad child. The beauty is in the blur, the thrilling shape of things to come.

The study used the Maidenhead Bridge where the Great Western Railway crossed over the Thames. Turner took a ride in the open carriage, memorized the sensation for his picture. And all of this was made possible by a genius of the next generation.

Isambard Kingdom Bunel: civil engineer -- the greatest of them all -- and in one way at least just like Turner. He surveyed the route for the Great Western Railway himself, walking the landscape between London and Bristol as would an artist studying the topography. As a form of non-linear landscape art, the Great Western Railway was probably the greatest creative statement of its time. Compared to Bunel, Turner might be just a crash test dummy... yet, what photograph, what blueprint, what testament memorializes the first railway experience better than Rain, Steam, Speed? Technology makes itself obsolete, but Art is the eternal harmonic of memory.

As Francis Claudon says in his book on Romanticism, "Turner's approach was totally original, but it opened up the door to such a wealth of possibilities that both the Impressionists and the Symbolists claimed him as one of them."

After 1820, Turner was atonal, and thereafter embraced visual noise. Representational imagery was gradually submerged into abstraction. You could say he stopped looking at the foreground, allowed the sky and cosmos to paint his eyes. It's said that he often lay in a ditch or on the bank of a river looking at the sky for hours, studying the sun through the clouds, tracking the shift in color and drift in light, reverting to the pagan self in a pantheistic embrace. Fog was his friend, an alias his cover (in his wanderings, he often adopted other names, other identities). His double life was a double vision, so to speak.

So Turner abandoned clarity and precision in favor of abstraction, of expressionism, of elemental fusion in order that he could see both the past and the future within the present. He engaged Nature like a musician, allowed himself to play within the elemental orchestra, glissando with the waves, the wind, the scudding clouds, the electrical crackle of thunder... and then, finally, with the Vulcanic roar of the new machines.

Turner: Napoleon

Turner's Napoleon at the Tate

Like today's art photographer who can only photograph sunsets, Turner's sky cult can seem a bit maudlin. There has to be more to life in the 1800s than staring at a field or the ocean, you think. Certainly the Napoleonic Wars gave him material even if pictures like Trafalgar 1 and 2 come across as sentimental propaganda. Yet his stunning symbolist study of Napoleon -- which must have been seen as dysfunctional to many at the time -- turns the conventional figurative painting inside out.

Hedging his politics, Turner called the oil "War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet" (1842) rather than making the mistake of glorifying the great General who, while he was the scourge of Britain, had many admirers, including Lord Byron. He comes close, though, as the study has a supernatural quality; the figure of Napoleon appears to be levitating in the blood red landscape (a fitting patina for his career as an exotic war criminal), will remind many of Magritte's levitating business men, and so nudges the conventional representational study into surrealism.

The figure of Napoleon has his own vanishing point, is a second mental layer just as we often think in double vision, placing an obsessive image from the past or elsewhere on an image of the present. You get the feeling that Turner recycled an unfinished landscape/skyscape, pasted in the figure of the exiled General. The effect is brilliant, as Napoleon has become detached from the physical world, floats in the collective memory like a guilty ghost. The sun has set on the Napoleonic Empire. We admire you, Monsieur Bonaparte, champion of freedom and Republican imperialism. We admire you and won't forget you, but we're damn glad you're gone. While the background is supposedly St. Helena, it could easily be Paris. The tidal pattern of the rococo sky is like a sea shell, which makes sense of the painter's exhibit caption:

‘Ah! thy tent-formed shell is like
A soldier's nightly bivouac, alone
Amidst a sea of blood
but you can join your comrades.’

So, in his most powerful works, Turner's paintings form the essence of a Sky Cult, and as such anticipate science fiction, the ultimate Sky Cult. Historical fantasy, primitivism, sensationalism, automatism, metaphysical transformation, dream logic and an incorrigible need to fictionalize his subjects. Fictionalizing is a common part of the artistic process, of course, despite the authoritarian need of society to pursue the real. Sometimes imagination is equated with deceit, especially when the viewer discovers the idealization involves theft. But when is it theft? There are no locks on imagery, whether it comes from Nature or the gallery down the street or the trance you leave as you awaken.

But then, wasn't his mother mad? Didn't she die in Bedlam?

© Lawrence Russell 2015

more LR: RADIO BRAZIL | Message from Turner mp3 [4:00]


The Tate Gallery, London. The Turner Collection, a number of visits over the years. Always a valuable experience.
The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London.

Chariots of the Gods? (Unsolved Mysteries of the Past), Erich von Daniken, 1968 translated by Michael Heron. Well-written SF meta-faction, now a classic, started a genre.
Stonehenge Decoded, Gerald S. Hawkins (with John B. White), 1965. Essential reading, especially chapters 6-11, for all students of astro-archaeology.
From Stonehenge to Modern Cosmology, Fred Hoyle, 1972. Confirms the Hawkins discovery with caveats. Well-written.
Standing In The Sun: a life of J.M.W. Turner, Anthony Bailey, 1997. Outstanding. One of the best bios around and might be the only one you'll ever need on Turner.

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