Monday Motivator: Breaking the Conventions of Light and Dark

“Turner, really, was the one who made the first significant break with the conventions of light and dark. In his last period he bunched value intervals together at the light end of the color scale, to show how the sky’s light or any brilliant illumination tended to obliterate half tones and quarter tones of shading and shadow.

The picturesque effects Turner arrived at made his public forgive him relatively soon for the way he had dissolved sculptural form. Besides, clouds, steam, mist, water and atmosphere were not expected to have definite shapes, and so what we now take for a daring abstractness on Turner’s part was then accepted in the end as another feat of naturalism. The same applies to Monet’s close-valued late painting.

Clement Greenberg, ‘American-Type Painting’ in Partisan Review spring 1955

[Note: value = tone]

I came across the mention that Turner was “the first painter to break with the European tradition of value paintings” whilst reading “Monet and Abstraction” (which I used for last week’s Monday Motivator: Monet the Abstract Painter). A look at the footnote, then the bibliography, then a long-tail internet search (i.e. searching using a lot of keywords) and I found the essay Greenberg wrote. A printed copy is now in the book with the quote that started me on this.

I’d assumed that, being an art critic and notoriously opinionated, Greenberg would have had a bit more to say than the short quote, and indeed he did (as quoted above). I’ve never thought about how Turner’s contemporaries would have perceived what we now call abstraction, other than maybe considering his paintings unfinished. That it could be seen as part of Naturalism (which the Tate Gallery describes as “a broad movement in the nineteenth century which represented things closer to the way we see them”) is intriguing given paintings in this genre seem so realistic to my eyes compared to Turner’s. But if Naturalism were pushing the boundaries of painting, then either Turner was on the far edges of this or in a category of his own. From biographies about him, I have the impression he believed the latter.

This esoteric bit of art history is of interest to me because it’s part of the tone vs colour approaches to painting. I get distracted by colour to the detriment of tone (cue: the in-house art critic and artist-friend Katie Lee quoting Margaret Livingstone on the number of rods and cones in the eyes of women and men in “Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing“) and have developed a workaround to compensate. On my wishlist is writing a book that focuses on colour as the foundation to painting not tone.

Self-Portrait c.1799 by Joseph Mallord William Turner. In Tate Britain.

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