England (part IV)

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Turner is the last victim, and the most illustrious, of this need to force the language of painting, to which Rembrandt and Velasquez give wings and a soul by permitting painting to follow their objective vision, and to unite that vision with their imaginary world. His desire certainly goes beyond, and far beyond, the equanimity of sentiment and the pacific positivism of the other English painters. He was almost the only one to see the sulphur sun shining at the depth of the mist. It was for him alone that the livid river showed itself through the trailing smoke. He surprised great phantoms in the fog and the rain, towers of brick and of old stone, ships, black chimneys, and red lanterns piercing the confused darkness, as a muffled cry issues from a great murmur, only to go back into it the instant afterward. He felt the sea and the light of the tropics enter the somber city with the tarred hulls and the sails of the vessels, with the wandering flight of the sea gulls, and with the phosphorescent slime, and mingled with their vanished wake, the indistinct echoes of receding streets, of docks, of sinister places, and of parks bathed in emerald, full of trees and of herds. And by an incredibly gallant lyric effort he tried to transpose this turbid and splendid material to an imaginary world where he mounted so high that the rarefied air could not sustain his flight.

He seems like a bird wheeling about in the lightning, intoxicated by electric storms and blinded by the flashes. Wherever he is on the planet and in history, whether he voyages with Shakespeare across ancient and Romanesque Italy, whether he plunges with van Goyen into the illuminated mist, or whether he visits, with Homer, the old heroic universe where the flame of the volcanoes and the song of the sirens lead Ulysses in his wanderings over the ocean, whether, suffocated by the wind, and drenched in salt and spray, he joins in the rescue of men shipwrecked on a fishing boat, or whether he accompanies Nelson amid the thunder of the cannon and the smoke, with the flags flying and the great sails torn, everywhere that sea water, and the water of heaven, and the sun mingle, he saw, in a land of supernatural legend, an aerial palace borne by the clouds, reddening in twilights and dawns which he confronted, flooded with bloody shadows and with coruscations of opals, sapphires, and rubies. One day he fixed his eyes on the setting sun of Claude. And thenceforward he cared to see no one else. The solid architectures have become translucent specters behind the fantastic fog, which permits the English country to show through only as furtive apparitions, supernatural at times, when the moon rises, or when the evening light, piercing the watery veil, where it is partly torn, shows the top of a tower suspended in the clouds, the turning beam of a searchlight, or the dark and flaming globe that sinks little by little. Everything becomes unreal and distant, like that water where Claude's sun, before disappearing, leaves its trail of liquid purple. It alone reigns from dawn to darkness, filling the world and filling history, bursting and scattering over them in explosions of blood and flame.

The superficial harmonies on which the English painters, since the time of van Dyck, had been expending their virtuosity, were to find their consummation in that strange art of Turner's, which marks the definitive separation of form from color, and the flight of painting into space alone, isolated from all material support, from every visible volume, from every deep bond with the universe of the senses. In reality, that sky and that water, confusedly mingling and seething in the incandescent flame, conceal an obvious coldness of the senses, a complete impotence to understand and supply an equivalent for the trunk and the intermediate branches which forever connect and render sensible, for one another and through one another, the roots of mankind and the perfume of its spirit. Turner masks the indigence of his color under fireworks. The light blinds him. He no longer sees anything but the light. Everything that it illuminates has disappeared. By itself, miracle that it is, it avenges the forgotten earth and the misunderstood heaven. The great harmonic unity of the world crumbles in places and wavers everywhere. Veiled by these gems, broken by these reflections of imaginary fires, the soil loses its consistency, the air thickens, that which is hard becomes fluid, that which is fluid becomes compact, the planes go flying, the values are jumbled, and the disunited universe floats like a luminous smoke torn to shreds by the wind. The poetic emotion and sentiment, superior, doubtless, to the means of expression, evaporate almost entirely, and no longer impress any save those who have not learned to understand the language of painting. Turner demonstrates both the lyric grandeur of the English soul and the impotence of English painting to communicate it.

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