JMW Turner is as quintessentially British as afternoon tea and the Union Jack.
For this reason, he is a particularly interesting artist to examine in context of the British exit from the European Union. Much of the leave the EU camp was motivated by nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-globalization sentiment. Sounds a lot like another English speaking country I live in. But, the vote was also about the concept of Britishness, and what exactly that means.
At a surface level Britishness is tea and scones, God save the Queen, horses, tartans and a general aura of stodginess. But national identity and culture is more complex than these sorts of simplifications.
Consider Joseph Mallord William Turner, born in 1775. Turner was a boy prodigy and quickly climbed the ranks of the Royal Academy, Britain’s premier art school. His work captures some of the most iconic aspects of British history and identity. His epic painting of The Battle of Trafalgar (1824) exemplifies the heroic, seafaring ideals of the country. It’s also a glorification of fight where the Brits trounce the French. It’s doesn’t get more English than that.
But, despite Turners mainstream appeal to elites and this very typical nationalistic work, he was also known for experimenting. By experimenting, I mean asking sailors to tie him to a mast in the middle of raging storm so he might better render the experience in paint.
Snow Storm is an excellent example of the other kind of work Turner is known for. Landscapes with blurry images and vortex composition, were considerably more controversial than his history paintings, but arguably his more important artistic legacy. Abstract works like Snow Storm later inspired impressionists like Monet.
Art, like national identities and membership in transnational organizations, is multidimensional. Oversimplification misses much of the fun, interesting aspects. JMW Turner himself is an artifact of British culture and an irrevocable part of its national identity. He is one of the greatest artists the country has ever produced. But, Turner’s art isn’t just stuffy battle scenes, it’s crazy storms and wild oceans. In a week where Britain has ostensibly voted to put Britishness first, it has taken a pretty narrow definition.
At the very least, Turner’s wonderful paintings The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons seem particularly appropriate this week. Even if a fire has not literally consumed Parliament, British leaders are dealing with a political one.