I look close up at paintings. I want to see how they’re built and with Turner it’s always built with slavers of paint; scooped, stretched and pulled across the canvas in intricate webs of impasto. Turner’s world is one of flesh and blood – light doesn’t shine and pool so much as flow and clot. Bones of rock are draped with muscles of earth and sinews of water, and on top of it all those famous Turner web-like tendrils of light, clambering across the face of the painting like rogue cells devouring it at a microscopic level. Indeed in his later work where whole sections of the canvas are bleached out by the light, it’s as if they have in fact enveloped it, bit by tiny bit. Looking at a Turner landscape is like looking at cells under a microscope; it moves and pulsates before your eyes, it’s organic and alive. The expression I used earlier “in the flesh” somehow seems more appropriate for Turner than any other artist’s work. Even artists like Rubens or Titian who loved nothing more than to show acres of the stuff didn’t give it as much life as Turner gives to a river.
Look at the water in Dido Building Carthage (that link should let you zoom in); the sun doesn’t reflect on that water, it’s draped on it, and it lies on the top of it like a cobweb draped over cotton left over a sofa in an abandoned house. Close up there are blobs of paint that are anchored at each end then stretched between. This painting is actually forming itself through pigment migrating to its natural state on the canvas – it wasn’t painted, it evolved, and it’s so alive you could genuinely believe it’ll look different in a year’s time.
I don’t believe this is (or was) conscious – I think this is an intuitive handling of paint which brings out the fact that it itself is the earth. Remember that this oil paint would have been ground from natural pigments and mixed with oil – the very stuff of the Earth. This was paint made almost by alchemy. Turner doesn’t kill the paint by forcing it into shapes and forms he wants it in; he seems to have such a natural rapport with it that it forms the images he wants co-operatively. It’s as if he simply puts it into a relaxed and natural state then encourages it oh-so gently to simply recreate the elements of the earth from which it came.