Saturday, March 05, 2011

Secret Influences 7: Sunrise with Sea Monsters

As much as my aesthetic allegiance belongs to the historical avant-garde, and to contemporary experimental art, there's still something that I find inspiring in the later work of J.M.W. Turner. I'm thinking particularly of the mid-1840s when he has left battle scenes and English landscapes behind to focus on elemental matters: light, weather, water, and mist. "Rain, Steam and Speed" (1844) is certainly a favourite for its anticipation of both Impressionism and Futurism, but it is the above piece, "Sunrise with Sea Monsters" (1845) that I am most often drawn to. As it's the only Turner piece that I am aware of that has a fantastical subject matter I wonder what he's attempting to do with the contrast between the title and the image. Is he being literal: that this is a painting of sea monsters? Or is he suggesting that the roiling sea creates a visual illusion of sea monsters when the sun rises? Are we meant to see two sea monsters (a pair of dolphin shaped creatures leaping above the water) or a single sea monster (the large central piscine face resting on the sea's surface)? Or both simultaneously? Moreover, is there a type of Magritte-like play between title, image, and viewer response? That is, do we only see sea monsters in this image because he has titled it so? I think it is this last issue that I find most intriguing, and this was one of the first paintings that alerted me to how ambiguous titling can shape aesthetic response and open up multiple readings, something that I was most involved with in my own poetics when writing Torontology, particularly in the sequences "The Variety of Efflorescence," "deClerambault's Syndrome," "5x4," "4x5," and "Prison Tattoos."

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