Very near the beginning of the large exhibition devoted to the English painter J. M. W. Turner -- at the Grand Palais, Paris, until Jan. 16 -- are two small, early oil paintings of gypsies in a beech forest. They have only recently come to light. Thought to date from about 1799, they show that Turner painted outdoors in oil paint earlier than had been previously supposed.
The inclusion of these scarcely known works is characteristic of the show as a whole: It's a completely fresh look at Turner, and by no means just a reassembled display of his better-known works.
The organizers were clearly conscious of this, however, as a good opportunity to approach Turner's art from a new angle and in a non-English context. There are certain secondary and cheerful consequences of presenting him to French eyes , not least being the translation of some of his titles. For instance, there is "Pluie, Vapeur et Vitesse" (full English translation, "Rain, Fog, and Speed -- The Great Western Railway").
Le Figaro kicked off the exhibition with a headline calling him the "Shakespeare of painting," but also printed a footnote describing his "Lautrec side."
In fact, as John Gage points out in the catalog, what was once lightly dismissed -- Turner's literary side -- has become one of the two main concerns of modern Turner criticism. He looked to Pope or Thompson for inspiration. He was keen on annotating his paintings with chunks of verse. His allegorical and symbolic intentions cannot be overlooked. The other main focus of study is his considerable originality as a colorist.
Both aspects are encountered fully in this exhibition. But there is a great deal more to Turner than these two facets. The prodigious variety of his accomplishments greets one at every turn.
He was ambitious and competitive. There are paintings here that display a perfectly conscious rivalry with the genre scenes of Wilkie, or the sublime effects of de Loutherbourg; with the Italianate classicism of Wilson; with Watteau's elegant fashionables strolling among the trees and statutory of 18 th-century parkland; with Rembrandt's suffusion of dark interiors with blurred and mysterious sources of light; and above all with the ordered, balanced landscapes of Poussin and Claude.
The influence of these French classicists is a likely to surface in a wide view of Richmond Hill (a location is what is now the suburbs of London) as an imaginary Greek scene with dancers in the foreground and the Acropolis in the distance. Poussin and Claude were at the roots of his determination to raise English landscape painting to the high seriousness of History Painting.
But even then there were further sides to this artist. As a painter of the sea he absorbed the lessons of 17th-century marine Dutch painting, making them the springboard of his own profound experiences of the ocean and its devastations. He echoed Crome and Gainsborough in some of his tamer rural scenes. Painting the Thames in the first decade of the century, he competed knowingly with Constable's naturalism. And theories of the "sublime" influenced his thinking about landscape no less than theories of the "picturesque."
Most of all, running threadlike through his career, is a practice resulting from his early training as a topographical watercolorist: the delineation of places visited, or art as record of travel.
Turner's output was so vast, his talent so multifaceted, that it would certainly be possible to hold an exhibition concurrently with this one that would be just as revealing. This is not to accuse him of repetitiveness. He is both enormously inventive and observant. Sometimes, as shown occasionally here, he produced three or four versions of a single subject, but each one with striking differences. At other times he could come up with weirdly unique offshoots from his main drive -- as in "Death on a Pale Horse" in this exhibition, or the old, orange-yellow "Jessica," so obviously in debt to Rembrandt, but so inappropriate to Turner's abilities.
It is in a work like "The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons" that his diverse qualities all seem to unite and explode in a magnificent image. This painting offers full play to his astounding sense of scale, his unequaled transformation of paint into cosmic drama, into a cataclysmic event of light, atmosphere, darkness, fire, and water. One feels suddenly that the whole of Turner is in evidence, his individuality fully liberated from his admiration, however fruitful, of the genius of other artists. . . . But then you see an extraordinary watercolor of a blood-orange sun setting behind dark clouds over the sea, or his dizzying paintings of the St. Gothard pass, or the lucid glare of the large finished oil painting of Venice.On each occasion a new Turner appears, as complete as the last.
Many of the "famous" Turners have not come to Paris, but it doesn't matter in the least. The "Shakespeare of painting" was profuse and abundant and apparently inexhaustible. He is at the Grand Palais in all his glory.