“Don’t work too hard,” people often say to me. So, recently I’ve been trying to listen and carve out some special time in my diary to do things that I enjoy. I have an interest in art and in an attempt to feed that interest I have been fortunate this year to visit a number of galleries. I have been to the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay in Paris where my wife and I went for our 40th anniversary jaunt. I was delighted there to be in the presence of works I have only ever seen before in books. I have been to the Tate Modern to see the Rothkos, and even managed a couple of visits to our own wonderful Penlee House Gallery in Penzance. What I particularly want to tell you about, however, are my two visits to the Tate Britain.
Britain’s favourite painting, according to a 2005 BBC vote, is Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire ahead of Constable’s The Hay Wain.
I have always been fascinated by Turner who has just recently been celebrated in a film starring Timothy Spall.
Earlier this year, I saw the Turner exhibition at the Tate Britain returning recently for Painting Set Free, an exhibition of his later work.
What wonderful experiences those visits were. Known as the painter of light, Turner’s depiction of light in oils and watercolours is masterly. What I particularly noticed, however, was that as Turner’s work progressed so he seemed to pay less and less attention to the objects, people and landscapes that occupied his paintings, and to focus more and more on the light, even to omit altogether solid objects and detail. In some it was almost as if he couldn’t paint those objects, those figures, those details, yet his earlier work proves his skill in that area.
As the years went on it seemed as if everything in his paintings became increasingly incidental to his treatment of the light, to his concentration “on the play of light on water, the radiance of skies and fires.” This change seemed particularly notable in some the canvasses he had reworked from earlier paintings like the 1828 Regulus to which he returned in 1837.
The eye is still drawn by the light that is central to all his work, but now the light seems to reach out yet more, a path is drawn, a way marked, a road set out so that one is invited to step into the painting, to move towards the light. The way, always before hinted at, is now made plain.
As he grew older, Turner became more eccentric. He had few close friends except for his father, who lived with him for 30 years and worked as his studio assistant. His death in 1829, 22 years before Turner’s own death, had a profound effect on the artist that included bouts of depression. I wonder if Turner wasn’t reaching out of the blackness that so often accompanies depression, out of Milton and Styron’s Darkness Visible towards a light that beckoned him from beyond. I wonder if his painting wasn’t Turner’s way of wrestling with something he perceived beyond the blackness, reaching out for a light that called him and yet was, ultimately beyond his reach or ability to capture on the canvas. Little wonder, perhaps, that when Turner died in 1851 his final words are said to have been, “The sun is God.” For Turner, his wrestling with light was not merely about capturing what he saw before him but about attempting to engage with a light that was, for him it seems, the emanation of God’s spirit.
Why these thoughts at this moment? I saw that last exhibition just before the start of Advent. My mind was turned already to this season’s themes of light and darkness. Into the darkness of winter comes the star in the sky, the bright angel heralds and the Christ child, the light that shines uncomprehended and undefeated in the darkness (John 1:5). The lights on our Christmas trees and perhaps even the displays that illuminate our towns and villages, maybe even the seasonally bright shop windows, are also features of this time, the battle against the darkness, the search for the light. Turner’s work seemed to speak powerfully to this Advent season and all it might represent.
Turner’s approach to light in his paintings brought severe criticism at the time. William Hazlitt commented that Turner’s ‘pictures are…too much abstractions of aerial perspective, and representations not properly of the objects of nature as of the medium through which they are seen…they are pictures of the elements of air, earth and water’. And yet, the depth, the “startling luminescence” of Turner’s work speaks to me of the mystery of God – a light that is inexplicable, beyond capture, yet which nevertheless draws us in, reaches out to us, invites us to encounter it not only in nature or on the canvas but even within ourselves. John Constable, painter of that second favourite of ours, disliked Turner’s work initially but later called his paintings ‘golden visions, glorious and beautiful; they are only visions but still they are art, and one could live or die with such paintings’. Constable had perhaps learned to see beyond what Turner had laid on the canvas to what he pointed towards, a vision which suggested a greater vision yet.
And isn’t that what religion is about, or ought to be? To use another heavenly body to illustrate: religion is a finger pointing at the moon, not the moon itself.
Where I’d part company with Turner, unless I misread him, is that I’d want to include those aspects of life that seem, at least towards the end of his career, to be incidental to his engagement with the light. With Walter de la Mere I’d want to encourage us to “Look (our) last on all things lovely, every hour.” And among that “all” I’d include not only the natural world but, also, people. I’d want to say that light may also emanate from them, from us. I’d want to say that that light is also seen in humanity; supremely for Christians in Jesus, God with us, light with us, but also, potentially at least, in you and me. It is as an unknown author suggests in this piece called Circles of Grace:
“Holy One: We live at mystery’s edge, watching for a startling luminescence or a word to guide us. In fragile occurrences you present yourself and we must pause to meet you. Daily, there are glimmers, reflections of a seamless mercy revealed in common intricacies. These circles of grace spill out around us and announce that we are part of you.”
There is that light in you and me; there has to be else we should not recognise the divine light. Isn’t that what the Genesis storyteller means when he has God say, “Let us make humanity in our own image; let us make humanity in the image of the one who called forth the light?” This is what the Quakers call the Inner Light, the idea that in every human soul there is implanted a certain element of God’s own Spirit and divine energy. Known to early Friends as “that of God in everyone” or “the seed of Light”, this is what John (1:9) calls, “the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens everyone.” To understand that there is that of God in each of us colours our view of both friend and stranger alike, and even of ourselves. As Archbishop Romero said of this season where we wait in expectation of the incarnation, of God with us in Christ: “Advent should admonish us to discover in each brother or sister that we greet, in each friend whose hand we shake, in each beggar who asks for bread, in each worker who wants to use the right to join a union, in each peasant who looks for work in the coffee groves, the face of Christ. Then it would not be possible to rob them, to cheat them, to deny them their rights. They are Christ, and whatever is done to them Christ will take as done to him. This is what Advent is: Christ living among us.”
It is impossible I think, for me at least, to see work such as Turner’s and not to respond to it. For me that response was to reflect on it theologically, and some of that I have shared with you here. But it also made me want to capture the light for myself in the medium I know best of photography. Just a few days after that Turner exhibition, I carved out an hour for myself to chase the dying sun in west Cornwall from Madron down to Levant, and then to share those pictures with others on social media.
In my action is, perhaps, a parable of the human response to the divine light we encounter in life. We share what we have seen.
In the end that is what Turner did for me, made me think again of the divine light reflected in Jesus whom Christians name the light of the world, and which calls forth a response from us as bearers of a smaller light, yes, but a light still from the same source.
As you leave these words would you consider asking yourself two things?
Where or in whom have I seen that divine light?
Where might I be that light for another?
And perhaps you might join me in being thankful for both.
Thankyou for reading.
http://www.bartleby.com/4/401.html Milton. Paradise Lost – The First Book
Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron pub UK 1991