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A guiding light

Turner's painting of the Fighting Temerairem depicts a tug towing a sailing ship in the light of a setting sun against the silhouette of a city. Traditionally, the picture symbolizes the change from one order to another, from sail to steam, from the romance of naval battles such as Trafalgar to the advent of the industrial age. The sun sets on Romanticism, the ''ghostly galleons'' on ''silver seas,'' a new light blazes from the bowels of an ugly, black tug, the smoke and flame of which besmirch the white bowsprit and yardarms of the shimmering ship above it.

Many changes can be rung on the symbolism of this contrast, but the theme itself, the moment at which impending forces presage destruction, is one that permeates Turner's oeuvrem : storms at sea, blizzards that dump snow and ice on mountain and valley, fires in cities and the eternal sunsets that plunge the world daily into darkness. These all epitomize Turner's fascination with the uncontrollable forces of nature which he confronted personally many times to record their chromatic wealth, underlying rhythms and philosophic implications.

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Two elements are present in most of his pictures: the fiery sun and water, both purifiers, creators, and destroyers. In this particular example, the golden Temerairem tamely follows the ungainly black tug, belching soot, smoke and flame across the blood-red glow of a glassy, treacherous sea. A ghostly city quivers through the haze; a huge black buoy dwarfs the sun; flotsam slides in the oily swell; in the gathering evening breeze, a sailing barge glides slowly by the tug's heavy paddles churning under their black hoods, while farther out a full-rigged sailing ship, its days also numbered, fills its topsails as it turns into the wind. From an indifferent, lonely sky, a sliver of moon glistens in the trembling ripples. A wan off-white sun, one of a sequence like a film still, hovers just above the far horizon. Blue and red, gold and silver, cold and warm, light and dark, contrast throughout. The skill of half a century of painting and drawing shows in every nuance of this picture, completed in 1838, one that Turner kept in his studio, one with which he refused to part.

It is not surprising that Turner liked it, for the picture communicates on many levels. Turner's perception of inevitable change, of the fragility and ultimate insignificance of human life, of the continually destructive powers of nature, the probability of catastrophe and holocaust, makes him one of us, a modern man, for man today gazes fearfully at a universe, the destructive capability of which lies in his hands, as he learns more and more every day. At one with Turner's awe and wonder before natural disasters was his evident love of the light-giving sun and the beauty of the visible world. Now that survival may have become a matter of faith alone, now that man can envision precisely the forces that may destroy him, Turner's warning message of humility and reverence before the wonders of the universe has never been more apt, nor as intensely poignant. More than ever, man now needs the light that scintillates and sparkles , gilding and embellishing the world in his pictures, the light that is its own source playing over the hull, mast, and rigging of the immortal Fightingm Temeraire on its way to the shipbreakers, last berth in the encroaching dark.


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