Turner & Film

Source:  Turner & Film    Tag:  jonathan crary techniques of the observer
As a means to explore the biography of an artist, cinema offers a range of techniques distinct from the written word. Among these, notably, is the mimetic ability to represent iconic artworks or dramatically re-stage their execution, and, significantly, through the use of cinematography, the evocation of the visual world of the subject. These devices have been exploited by directors of the greatest artist biopics, from Peter WatkinsEdvard Munch and Ken Russells Savage Messiah, to Derek Jarmans Caravaggio, and now Mike Leighs Mr. Turner

The centripetal force of Leigh s biopic is the ambiguous space between the radical, revolutionary fervour of Turner s paintings and the mortal, flawed individual behind them. I wanted, Leigh explains in an interview for Tate Shots, to make a film about Turner the personality, but that means nothing by itself. Leigh shows Timothy Spall as a mutton-chopped Turner jabbing and spitting at Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth (exhibited 1842) and re-stages, for example, sketched scenes at Petworth House. Only once does the cinematography align with the scumbled whorls of Turner s later works the primal flux which denies the separate identity of things as Lawrence Gowing described it when the artist lashes himself to the mast of a storm ship in order to gain first-hand experience of the elements. This glance into the void reminds us of the revolutionary nature of Turner s vision in the mid-nineteenth century: it fills the sight by force. 

In Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the nineteenth century the art historian Jonathan Crary elevates Turners vision as the measure of fundamental epistemological shifts that occurred in early European modernity. Certainly Turner was familiar with optics and theoretical ideas of colour, particularly Goethes Theory of Colour, which are tested in Light and Colour (Goethes Theory) - the Morning after the Deluge (1843). (According to Goethe, yellow red produces a shock, and seems literally to bore itself into the organ of sight.) John Ruskin intuited as much when, in 1843, he implored readers of Modern Painters to really look at the sky: it quivers in variety and fulness in it you see or imagine short falling spots of deceiving light, dim shades, faint veiled vestiges of dark vapour. This, he writes, is what Turner shows us: the instability of perception, rather than normal, stabilised vision. And Turners mature style is a radical challenge to the geometricized perspectival regime of vision, collapsing, as it does, the distance separating an observer from the site of optical experienceand situating perception itself as the object of vision.  While few today find Turner s paintings shocking, Leigh s only-brief alignment with his vision suggests its disruptive power in the institution of mainstream narrative cinema.

Beyond Leighs biopic, the relations between Turner and film are rich. For example, beginning with the public announcement of photographys invention in 1839, the film historian A.L. Rees traces a kind of Warburgian survival moving to Sir Charles Eastlakes English translation of Goethes Theory of Colour, published in 1840, Turners Light and Colour (Goethes Theory), and Turners and John Constables influence on Delacroix and Monet, which, he claims, is unconsciously present, almost an Impressionist subject sprung to life, in the Lumière brothersFeeding Baby.

Into the twentieth century, much of what we now call historic avant-garde film sought to critique the apparatus of mainstream cinema, including the very space in which films were presented. And in post-war Britain Turners radical renewal of perception became of particular interest to artist film-makers who sought, among other things, to activate a spectator believed to be pacified by commodity culture. For such filmmakers, frame, surface, grain, light, movement, print stock normally invisibleaspects of film, provided the raw material for work. Even mistakessuch as flare, scratching, slippage, and double-exposure would be incorporated (one thinks here of Turners mistakes: spitting on the canvas, overpainting finishedworks on varnishing day). Rather than select a subject, many looked to natural phenomena as agency beyond the subject. But in the latter half of the twentieth century this was not so much to evoke the Turnerian sublime, as a post-nature Gaian sensibility.

 British avant-garde filmmakers, among them Chris Welsby, William Raban, and John Woodman, asserted the illusionism of cinema through the sensuality of landscape imagery, and simultaneously asserted the material nature of the representational process which sustained the illusionism.  Rabans work View (1970) alternated shooting speeds to introduce rhythm into the landscape. Colours of This Time (1972) used long exposures to alter the colour of sunlight (in MM (2002) the camera stares unblinkingly into the sun). River Yar (1971-2), made with Chris Welsby, presents, in time-lapse, two views of the river at set points around the Autumn and Spring Equinoxes and alludes to the passage of the moon around the earth signalled by the change in tides and the passage of the earth around the sun the light at different times of year. With both Constable and Turner,Raban has commented, I was interested that their work preceded the French naturalists like Monet. Monet was of particular interest because of his serial paintings of the same place under different conditions of light.
Chris Welsbys own films have consciously avoided a stable, coherent point of view implicit in nineteenth-century landscape painting. Welsby achieves this is by employing multiple projectors, as with his six-screen film installation Shore Line 11 (1979), which loops portrait format images of waves lapping at the foreshore. Lawrence Gowing, ever perceptive, suggested that the essence of Turners last works might be gathered from the compound infinite meanings that he gave to water. Welsby is sensitive to these nuances in his film Drift (1994), a study of winter light falling on the continually moving surface of water. A misty pall restricts the visibility of objects at sea. The dominant colour is grey a grey that sparkles with hues of blues and greens.

These non-narrative films can be characterised by a near-total absence of the human figure, a fascination with temporal cycles, and the use of fixed-frame long take shots. Their use of predetermined, rationalised procedures and specific quantities of time, rather than simply optical effects, are what negates their Romanticism. These are qualities familiar to a younger generation of filmmakers, of whom Emily Richardson is exemplary. Richardsons film Cobra Mist (2008) takes its name from a secret over-the-horizon surveillance radar of the same name off the coast of Suffolk. Using time-lapse and manipulated sound-recordings, Richardson figures the camera as, simultaneously, a radio mast and weather mast. Squally showers lour in from the North Sea, wetting, steaming, and tinting the lens. Richardson invites the viewer to consider vertical terrestrial space its nebulousness from the grounded horizontality of the physical landscape in which the camera is placed.

Since opening in Margate in 2011, Turner Contemporary has exhibited and commissioned a number of artists who have respond to its namesakes legacy, including John Smith with his film work Horizon (Five Pounds a Belgian) (2012), and Rosa Barba with her exhibition Subject to Constant Change (2013). For three months, Smith filmed from the large picture windowof the gallery and around Margate, capturing dramatically changing weather conditions. Smiths intention is to collapse the poles of distance and involvement, to create for the viewer a simultaneous sense of being outside and inside, as Turners late works achieve. To accompany her exhibition Subject to Constant Change Rosa Barba made a selection of drawings Turner used to illustrate his lectures on perspective as Professor of Perspective at the Royal Academy. Barba, fascinated by their modern appearance, was fascinated by Turners depth of knowledge of points of view, colour, and reflection all key interests in her own recent work.

The nexus of these, and many more, diverse works influenced by Turner would be a fascinating way to furnish a biography by other means. What would emerge? A forceful sense of the extent to which Turners revolutionary renewal of perception has, and continues to, influence painting and cinema alike.