The groundbreaking Romantic British painter, J. M. W. Turner, is receiving a lot of attention at the moment because of the critical success of Mike Leigh's biopic, Mr. Turner. Mr. Turner is a long. visually arresting film that does not follow the classic three-act structure but is instead a layered, incremental, often pointillist portrait of an eccentric genius whose unorthodox brushwork and treatment of color presaged the Impressionists and the eventually dissolve of representational art. It Is not a film for everyone, but I loved it. Although the painting above, now known as The Slave Ship, is featured not once but twice in the film, its presentation is so abbreviated that the viewer can only grasp its significance if s/he already knows the history upon which the painting is based. Mike Leigh references the horrific incident to which the original title alludes (Slavers Throwing overboard the dead and dying) but uses the painting mainly to flog art critic John Ruskins' son as a proper twit.
So, allow me to expound. And, in the interests of endless self-promotion, I will be quoting from my forgotten scholarly masterwork, The Identity Question: Blacks and Jews in Europe and America. (Still available for purchase from the University of Mississippi Press!)
"In 1783, a case came before the court of the King's Bench in London concerning a British slave ship, the Zong. During a voyage of the Middle Passage, disease ravaged the human cargo, and, since insurance would not pay for unmarketable sick slaves or slaves killed by illness but would pay for drowned slaves, the ship's captain alleged a shortage of water on board and ordered 132 Africans thrown into the ocean. The defendants in this case were not the slavers brought to trial for the murder of 132 souls but the insurers of the cargo, from whom the owners of the Zong sought compensation for lost property. Without retiring, the jury gave judgment against the underwriters and the owners were awarded damaged of £30 for each slave." (pp. 31-32)
57 years later, Turner unveiled The Slave Ship in an 1840 exhibition that coincided with an anti-slavery conference, so his political sympathies are not in doubt. Yet when one looks at the picture, one's eye is first drawn to the yellow and crimson colors of a sunset seen through on the oncoming typhoon. (Mark Twain in A Tramp Abroad famously quoted a Boston critic's particularly boneheaded assessment of the picture as "a tortoise-shell cat having a fit in a platter of tomatoes.") It takes closer attention to the bottom third of the painting to see the despairing hands, inhuman chains, and weird fish plowing the water's churning surface. The political statement seems to be overwhelmed by Turner's famous obsession with seascapes.
Whatever the case, the picture has become famous since John Ruskin purchased it for his son. Ruskin, a titan of art criticism, wrote "If I were reduced to rest Turner's immortality on any single work, I should chose this." As an ironic rebuke to the critic who dissed the painting in a Boston newspaper, the masterwork is on display as part of the permanent collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
-- Robert Philipson