Rediscovered Love: The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to Be Broken Up, 1838, by J.M.W. Turner


Nothing beats the love of great art out of you than going into the art/wall-decor business. It’s literally been years since I’ve been able to really appreciate museum art.   Then this week I came across an article in one of my favorite magazines (The New Yorker) about one of my favorite painters (Joseph Turner), written by one of my favorite art historians (Simon Schama), and the love was back.


The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to Be Broken Up, 1838, by Joseph M.W. Turner

I’ve always had a thing for “The Fighting Temeraire,” and according to one article, so have a lot of British people: In a 2005 BBC radio poll, they voted it the greatest British painting of all time (hear hear). One part painterly delight, one part heavy-handed metaphor and one part je-ne-sais-pas-quoi subtlety, this painting just hits the spot. For me, not only does this landscape painting / historical narrative painting beautifully sum up the end of an era in British history, but it’s also relevant in our current age of rapid technological change.

Also, given that Turner was a transitional figure between the elite establishment Beaux Arts schools and the emerging Impressionist movement, I think there’s some self-reference (and even self-mockery) going on in this painting. In terms of style and content, the Fighting Temeraire painting is both OF the subject of transition and ON the subject of transition. In the New Yorker article, Schama neatly sums up this painting as being “… not about the embalming of the British past but about its unsentimental coupling with the future.” 

Schama pulls a Schama and totally nails it in his last paragraph, where he points out a very interesting aspect of the Fighting Temeraire: If you analyze the landscape features carefully enough (assuming you have a working knowledge of Britain’s geography, naval history and river flows, natch) one could conclude that the painting in fact depicts a sunrise, not a sunset. Schama admittedly isn’t the first to point this out, but he seems to embrace the notion that, whether or not it was a deliberate gesture on the part of Turner, in any case the implications are wonderful.

(full New Yorker article here.)

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About danspira

My blog is at: http://danspira.com. My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on September 24, 2007, in Art, Metaphors. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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