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Turner, in Full Light

In the 1805 oil painting
In the 1805 oil painting "The Shipwreck," top, Turner displays a Romantic view of the terrifying forces of nature, while "The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805," above, painted in 1823-24, is more straightforward. The National Gallery exhibition surveys his vast, highly diverse output. (National Maritime Museum, London, Greenwich Hospital Collection)

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By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 1, 2007

Joseph Mallord William Turner is Britain's greatest artist because his radical watercolors are so much about pure tone and color that they foreshadow much later abstraction.

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Or, Turner is great because of his oil paintings' extreme fidelity to nature, registering every detail of how a landscape or a building looks.

Turner is great because his scenes of ancient life express the timeless ideals of classical culture. Or, he's great because of his close reporting of the realities of England's Industrial Revolution.

Turner is great because of his unbridled brush and brilliant palette. Or, his greatness lies in his more than 800 superbly detailed prints in black and white. After all, they're what won Turner a mass audience, as well as much of the huge fortune he left behind when he died in 1851.

Or maybe all of the above are true. In which case Turner's greatness lies in his resisting, more than almost any artist you could name, any single notion of what great art might be.

The 146 works in the landmark Turner survey opening today at the National Gallery of Art's West Building could almost be by half a dozen different artists -- each busy breaking an entirely different set of rules. This country's largest Turner survey, ever, gives us the artist almost complete, however much that completeness baffles us.

That has a weird effect on the exhibition. If most great artists' surveys give something for everyone to like, the strong feeling in the Turner show is that there's something there for everyone, even his greatest admirers, to dis like. Turner isn't about an artistic business-as-usual, punctuated by various high points. There are radically incompatible ways of doing things scattered throughout the show, and throughout Turner's career. If you're committed to his glowing, almost abstract lightscapes -- the pictures that were Turner, for much of the 20th century -- what do you do with his warts-and-all picture of the bodies lying dead at Waterloo at night? If it's his tempestuous scenes of unbridled nature that get you going, can you stomach his mild-mannered images of the Olde Englyshe countryside?

Yet whatever your taste, it will be hard for you to argue that certain pictures are Turner's clear path to genius and others unfortunate byways. In fact, Turner makes mere taste seem shallow and inadequate to what he is about.

The National Gallery survey is arranged chronologically, which means that it begins with Turner as the precocious 14-year-old son of a Covent Garden barber, taking figure-drawing classes at the nearby Royal Academy of Arts but making a specialty of landscapes and architectural views. By 1802, when he was just 26, Turner was elected a full member of the academy -- its youngest ever -- and was its professor of perspective by 1807.

So far, so good: That explains the wonderful early interiors on view, and the credible spaces and structures Turner could conjure up at will for the next 50 years. The problem is that that Turner seems to have so little in common with so many of his other avatars. For every image that is full of order and architecture, there's another that dissolves into vague forms and unreadable space. Or one that, like the Waterloo battle scene, concentrates on figures rather than structures. Why not, you say? Remember those life drawing classes? Which only invites another question: Did Turner sleep through them? Almost every Turner body is a mess of barely connecting limbs.

The standard answer to the anatomy problem (this artist is nothing if not problematic) would be that Turner is about overall effects and strong emotions, not pedantic detail. Some of his bodies recall the tortured forms in Rembrandt's late, great Crucifixion prints. At least in his first years, Turner was supposed to be a card-carrying Romantic, which meant that he cared more than anything about evoking the terrifying forces of sublime nature. The wonderful second gallery in the exhibition is full of perfectly conceived tableaux of a ship wrecked in a tempest, of a roaring cataract on the Rhine and of a biblical plague of fire and hail striking ancient Egypt. These are some of Turner's most straightforwardly satisfying paintings -- which makes them less than typical of all his other art.

So Turner is about sublime effects, even at the expense of fussy accuracy. Except when he isn't. There are, for instance, a slew of carefully rendered watercolors -- not washy or abstract, these -- painted as the basis for painstaking prints of some of England's best-known sights. (The show's big flaw: Not one of Turner's prints is in it, though they played a major role in his art and life. Would their presence have simply added one too many complications to our view of him? Only three are to be seen at all in the museum, in a tiny rare-book display at the other end of the building.)

What about oil paintings titled "Whalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flaw Ice, Endeavouring to Extricate themselves" or the impressively titled "Snow Storm -- Steam Boat off a Harbour's Mouth Making Signals in the Shallow Water, and Going by the Lead. The Author Was in This Storm on the Night the Ariel Left Harwich"? Clearly those two must be all about the importance of the information they provide. The first seems to have been painted to appeal to a patron with interests in whaling; the second represents itself as the painter's own eyewitness account of a notable event.

And then you look at those two pictures and find, first, that they don't look all that different. And second, that they're so broadly suggestive in their treatment you'd never guess their subjects without the captions Turner provided. It's almost as though Turner is playing off the contrast between subject and treatment. A picture such as Turner's "Snow Storm" could be praised to the skies for its sublime accuracy by the great British critic John Ruskin, one of the artist's fiercest defenders. But it could be also dismissed as "soapsuds and whitewash," as yet another of Turner's "pictures of nothing, and very like," as one wag put it. Turner doesn't just make pictures that some people like and others hate. He makes pictures that different viewers seem to see completely differently.

In life, Turner was a famously ornery, odd character. A little man with a huge head, in cold weather he wore a handkerchief under his hat, with its corners hanging out. When he taught, he mumbled in such a heavy London accent that his classes were hardly worth taking. He was famous for his thrift and nose for business, building a private gallery where his paintings could be shown and sold to best advantage. Yet wealthy patrons were sometimes told to take a hike. This kind of eccentricity was a classic move for a working-class boy trying to make it in a culture ruled by toffs. By refusing the standard social codes, he could escape the lowly position they consigned him to. Could that same attitude be the force behind Turner's art?

Looking at Turner's pictures may have rather the same effect that visiting him had: You never know quite where you stand, what oddness he'll throw at you next or whether to be impressed, appalled or flattered when he lets you watch him breaking rules.

J.M.W. Turner continues through Jan. 6 in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, on the north side of the Mall at Fourth Street NW. Admission is free. Call 202-737-4215 or visit http://www.nga.gov.

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