The paintings of J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), which were recently exhibited at the Getty Center, are truly awesome. I don't just mean "excellent," although they certainly tick that box. No, these paintings get at the root of a word that -- before it became the descriptor-of-choice for everything from a good grade to a tasty breakfast -- meant a feeling of "dread mingled with reverence." And somewhat surprisingly, given Turner's penchant for Europe's wettest places, the paintings are also perfectly at home in Southern California.
For example, consider "Peace: Burial at Sea" (1842), a memorial for artist David Wilkie in which black-sailed ships frame the pale glow of a funeral pyre. Circled by a vortex of paint that's been scumbled and dashed into smoke and sea foam, the fire is a still heart around which the rest of the painting swirls.
It's a calm swirl, an indication of endless motion rather than turbulence, which counterpoints the stately end of a human life. Stately, but nonetheless slight, in the face of vast and ceaseless natural forces.
Turner wasn't always so metaphorical in his approach to mortality. In the same year that he painted "Peace," the artist apparently had himself tied to a ship's mast in order to experience a storm first hand. "I was lashed for four hours," he reportedly said, "and I did not expect to escape." True or not, the story was an effective rebuttal to critics who described "Snow Storm: Steam-Boat Off A Harbour's Mouth" (1842) as "a mass of soapsuds and whitewash." From his superior position of direct experience, Turner responded: "I wonder what they think the sea is like?"
For Turner, a Romantic in the true sense of the word, the sea brought him to that awesome sensation of awe-inspiring awfulness that eighteenth century philosopher Edmund Burke named "the sublime:" a quality of boundless greatness, which can compel and destroy but cannot be measured.
What does all this have to do with SoCal? Apart from the region's stunning natural environment -- with "stunning" being the speech-and-reason-stealing cousin to awesome -- two threads tether Turner's board to our regional ankles: Impressionism and surfing.
Describing her first experience of hurricane surf, designer Lynda Decker writes: "The mix of magic and potential peril exhilarated me." Citing Burke, she continues: "the surfer is awed by [the ocean's] vastness; our surfing is here and now because of conditions, wind and pressure systems, that are hundreds of miles away. We feel very small."
Turner didn't surf, but he did make hundreds of sketches from the shore that, like "Study of Sea" (c.1820-30), resonate with Decker's sense of swelling immensity.
Detail and focus may anchor an image in the here-and-now, but perhaps the sublime can only be achieved by painting space, and the light that fills it? Although they once drew accusations of "senile decrepitude," Turner's hazy atmospheres now provoke claims of "proto-Impressionism." Certainly Claude Monet saw Turner's paintings in 1870, two years before he painted "Impression Sunrise," the work that inspired the accusation of "impressionism."
French Impressionism made its way to Southern California in the 1890s by way of the railroad, which transported artists and students between Los Angeles and the Paris-influenced art schools of the east. Clustered in settlements along the coast, they painted in the open air to capture the region's beauty and its light.
It is possibly this clear light -- so different from Western Europe's opalescence -- that prompted them to underpin French Impressionism's high-key palette and broken brushwork with clearly defined forms. Whatever its origin, California's hybrid style stabilized the French painter's "fleeting moment," and utterly refused Turner's suggestive "soapsud" atmospherics.
In works like George Gardner Symons's "Southern California Coast" for instance, sun-filled clarity and well-formed rocks position the viewer in a stable universe where, in contrast to Turner's misty vortices, peril has no place to hide, and doubt gives way to satisfaction. "Beauty should not be obscure," stated Edmund Burke, unlike the sublime, which ought to be "gloomy." Beauty and the sublime, he asserted: "are indeed ideas of a very different nature, one being founded on pain, the other on pleasure."
Having presided over SoCal's visual vocabulary for almost forty-years, Impressionism was supplanted in the 1930s by Regionalism. With its emphasis on representation, narrative, and local relevance, Regionalism might well be named the anti-sublime. Undoubtedly its works, which were largely funded through the depression-busting efforts of the WPA's Federal Art Project, shun atmospherics and rarely provoke a sense of universal vulnerability in the face of awe-inspiring forces.
So, what happened to awesome? With the 1950s advent of High Modernism, representational art became relegated to the "lower" ranks of illustration and Sunday painting. As a result, Turner's picture-making route to the sublime was closed to "fine" artists and members of the avant-garde. In consequence, rather than representing space and light, SoCal artists like James Turrell and Maria Nordman began to present them in installations of what might be called a "dematerialized sublime."
This does not mean that all artists stopped making images of Southern California though. Instead, the post-war consumer and tourism booms generated more pictures than ever before. "Regatta" by influential watercolorist and Disney artist Phil Dike, for example, is characteristically celebratory; while his "Untitled" watercolor is replete with the glow of a golden afternoon.
For Dike and the many others who painted SoCal scenes, the ocean was a theater. But unlike Turner's sublime show, their drama characterized nature as a site for pleasure, consumption, and satisfaction.
Is it significant that surfing, which had been a micro-niche sport, became massively popular around the time that "Regatta" graced the cover of Western Family Magazine? In a world made safe for consumption, might cravings for the sublime have fuelled the surfing boom, as much as any desire for "Regatta's" Middle-America-on-the-beach lifestyle? (A case of leashing oneself to a board, perhaps, rather than having oneself lashed to a mast?)
As the postcard for John Severson's 1963 movie "The Angry Sea," and home recordings like this demonstrate, surf culture tends to celebrate "man triumphant" -- if not precisely in control of nature, then at least in harmony with its great force. More recently however, fine artists -- for whom representation is once again acceptable -- have injected a greater sense of fragility into pictures of surfing.
While Raymond Pettibon's colossal wavescapes echo commercial imagery, its triumphalism is doubly destabilized: First by broken brushwork and tremulous layering, which infer a lack of separation between the rider and the sea. Second, by fragments of text, which seem to open a window into the mind of the painted surfer; or, as in "Untitled (Man Stands)," to replace his presence entirely.
"Man stands as in the center of Nature; his fraction of time encircled by eternity, his handbreadth of space encircled by infinitude: how shall he forbear asking himself, What am I; and Whence; and Whither?"
By appropriating the grandiose language of philosopher Thomas Carlyle, a Turner contemporary, Pettibon simultaneously pricks at the Romantic position and proposes its "region of doubt... forever in the background."
Refusing both irony and the money shot heroics of traditional surf imagery; Cathy Opie's "Surfers" are little more than specks in the milk of a Malibu fog. Suspended in stillness, they wait for a wave that may never come.
Like Turner's "whitewash" and Pettibon's words, Opie's horizon-blurring pearlesence points toward "eternity" and "infinitude." Unlike theirs, however, Opie's existential drama lacks histrionics. In her theater of perpetual anticipation, nature does not, after all, swirl around a human center.
"How do we take notice of the sublime anymore?" the artist has asked. With their sense of (self) importance lost, her "Surfers" suggest forces so great, so boundless, so potentially perilous, that any individual relationship to them is negligible to the point of nonexistence. Now that is AWESOME.