Turning Turner

On a wintery Wednesday beginning of 2023, near the west coast of the Netherlands, our attention suddenly is drawn to Joseph Mallord William Turner, the painter who famously depicted fury scenes on the sea. Already last year we had an eye on fiction stories we could read to get a feeling of the power of different water bodies. The coming weeks we will indulge in Theodor Storm’s The Rider on the Horse to start this process, study Turner’s paintings, other related artworks and poetry.

Turner had a successful career depicting what is considered the sublime nature, as described by a critic as something that “Impresses us with the sublimity of vastness and solitude” (quoted by Malcolm Andrews in the essay Turner and the Mystery of the Sea). Such powerful astounding scenes boggle our mind, halt our rational process and leave us in terror and admiration. Naturally this sense of being out of control interests us very much since our watery endeavor has been about relating to water in different ways, rather than taming and containing it.

Water already possesses more mysteries than we can comprehend, the recent surprising discovery of a new form of ice can attest to this. Large bodies of water with seemingly infinite surfaces still speak to our human primal terror of the unknowable. The mystery and drama is intensified in the darkness dimly illuminated by the only source of light out in the open sea—the moon. Flickers of waves rock our bodies, in each palpation, our body is being contested with the unknown potential of protection (float) or destruction (sink).

Fishermen at sea, J. M. W. Turner, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The shipwreck, J. M. W. Turner, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When one is out in the open sea, beyond the safe boundary of the shore, all is at the mercy of the sea-earth-moon dynamic. Our human apparatus of choice speaks to our sense of dominance over the environment; are we to float or sink with it, are we to change its course and make it predictable, or are we to acknowledge the somewhat painful realisation that we humans are not beyond this world but are living within it.