Turner’s Modernism

The “modern” quality of Turner’s painting is quite evident when contrasted with previous ideas of the relationship between the observer and the object of observation. The dominant idea about vision and observation prior to the 19th century was best exemplefied by the camera obscura. The model of the camera obscura assumes that observation should lead to something approaching a “perfect” view of thing. This view is uniform and and unchanging. What one observer sees, others should as well. The observer’s own subjective thought processes play no role in observation in the camera obscura model. The camera obscura, according to Crary, is “an apparatus that guaranteed access to an objective truth about the world” (31).

The idea of objectivity in observation and the non-emphasis on the observer’s perception is quite different from Turner’s approach to images. the accurate and clearly defined lines and proportions produced through the use of a camera obscura are greatly diminished in Turner’s landscape paintings. In their place, he defines his images with bold, unconventional textures, a lack of distinct features and and the removal of an immediately identifiable horizon or focal point. Turner’s paintings seem more concerned with the way the observer views its colors and shades and how they interpret these than with producing an “accurate” image. Above all else, the thing that makes Turner’s paintings modern is that they allow the observer to engage in discourse with the image they are viewing. To Turner, the boldly outlined, easily interpreted quality and assumed objectivity of the camera obscura model appear to be “a sign of conceptual banality, a weakness in the mind’s eye”. Rather than spoon-feed an audience an image, goes Turner’s logic, why not give them cues and allow their perception to color their observation of the image? Turner’s use of light in his paintings often brings to mind the afterimage one sees after staring at the sun, giving some images a hazy, there-but-not-there look. His ability to reconcile the ambiguity of his creative process with a thematic consistency give his works a surreal and personal quality that somewhat makes him the Debussy to the camera obscura school’s Bach and Vivaldi. This disregard for centuries-old artisticconventions and emphasis on the subjective experience would go on to influence other modern art movements such as impressionism(one could argue that Turner was the first one).

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One Response to Turner’s Modernism

  1. Dominique says:


    Excellent post. This is an eloquent explanation and interpretation of the way the camera obscura served as one “model” for visual experience in the 19th century (both as a mechanical tool used to reproduce images and an analogy for sight itself). You are right on target about the way that Turner’s style poses a challenge to such a model.

    (This time, I have to deduct one point for lateness, though I know that will not be an issue in the future.)

    Thank you for this contribution!

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