Turner: The Man and the Angel

Turner’s painting Sun Setting over a Lake is one of a group of paintings, ‘Late Unfinished Sea Pieces’, whose dating and provenance are uncertain. They are generally dated to the period 1830-45, though some people disagree, and there is some suggestion that Turner’s assistant, Francis Sherrell, may have had a hand in them.

Then there is the subject matter. As always, what seems to concern the critics is the visual evidence. What can we see? Except that they always focus on the physical details. So regarding Sun Setting over a Lake, the display caption says, ‘The topographical details of this painting are hazy and indistinct […] passages of white paint may depict snowy Alpine mountains.’ And the catalogue entry ends, ‘Whether the picture shows the sun setting over a lake or the sea is difficult to determine, but the presence of what appear to be mountains on the right suggests the former.’

Which is to say we haven’t the foggiest and must make of the painting what we will. Turner’s impressionistic style (which is contrasted in the catalogue entry with an earlier more substantial, three-dimensional style) puts paid to objects. This is very interesting for me, because I think many of the world’s problems come from our obsession with objects. The fact that you define something as an object suggests that object doesn’t have its own will and you can do what you like with it. Trade is based on this premise, and trade is what drives the economy.

But this is to miss the inner vision of things, their true value. I have already written two articles about the Bulgarian poet Tsvetanka Elenkova’s inner vision of Turner’s paintings, which she has recorded in a book of poems entitled Turner and the Uncreated Light (forthcoming in both Bulgarian and English). These articles can be read here and here.

Let us focus on the painting in question, Sun Setting over a Lake:

Sun Setting over a Lake by J. M. W. Turner (reproduced from http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N04665)

What can we see? What is the visual evidence?

Well, I can make out a sun on the left, a bright dot, and a splodge of white paint on the right with a bluish patch. There is the suggestion that when a painting of Turner’s is impressionistic like this, it may just be unfinished, but as Elenkova points out in another poem, after Michelangelo the fact that something is unfinished doesn’t make it imperfect.

Impressionism allows us to enter the true value of things. It takes us away from our three-dimensional vision of the world by which we like to control the things around us. This painting is a case in point. Let us start, as we did with the painting Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, by rotating the painting by ninety degrees:

Now the vision becomes more interesting. There is the figure of a man. Where the sun is is just below the mouth, on the right cheek. Above this is the hazy outline of a nose, two eyes, and a dark patch of hair. Underneath the sun can be seen the man’s neck, and on either side the two shoulders. Not all the torso is visible, but what we can see very clearly is the windpipe. The torso is an upside-down triangle. Above the man’s left shoulder is what looks like the kind of handprint found in primitive cave paintings. This part of the painting relates to this world.

Now rotate the painting by ninety degrees the other way:

What we have now is an angel. Again, the torso is only partially visible, an upside-down triangle. The angel’s neck is stretched upwards, and the angel is in profile. We see a chin, the lips, a nose, a bright patch on the forehead. The angel’s vision is directed heavenwards, and over his right shoulder can be seen the bright patch of a wing.

Where the handprint was in the other half of the painting, above the angel’s left shoulder, there is a dove, which in the poet’s vision would represent the Holy Spirit, whispering words to the angel.

When we return the painting to where it was:

in the foreground, right of centre, we see the figure of an owl on what looks like a branch.

Was Turner aware of all these details in his painting? I’m sure he wasn’t, but they are there, if one chooses to see the spiritual side of things. And it is this spiritual vision that the world has need of, not to see things as bringing us profit (the world of politicians), but as having an intrinsic value in themselves.

Why are we not exposed to this kind of vision? And why do we not pass it on to our children? You can read as many academic books as you like about Turner’s painting, I am quite sure you will not find this kind of vision. They will limit themselves to what has been recorded by contemporaries, to what the author can see, to how one painting relates to another. This is all very interesting, but it doesn’t take us out of the physical world we live in.

And this spiritual vision is also important when it comes to saving the planet. We give great importance to the physical environment, as we should, we live in this environment, but we must also be able to see the essence of things, their inner meaning, otherwise we won’t make good stewards and our decisions may be skewed. It is not just the environment, but also what is behind or inside the environment, what inspires it.

I have no doubt that Elenkova’s poems will have a difficult reception in both the Bulgarian- and the English-language spheres. They may not even find a publisher all too easily. And yet I would say their vision is essential for our well-being.

Jonathan Dunne, http://www.stonesofithaca.com