The image above is another one of Turner’s lesser-known paintings, Mouth of the Seine, Quille-Boeuf (1833), a distinctively Turnerian picture. Serene upon first glance, the picture actually incorporates violent elemental forces. Near the small French town of Quillebeuf-sur-Seine (which Turner visited), a concentrated narrow channel of the river opens out and meets the full force of the sea, thus rendering the surrounding waters hazardous; tidal variations and shifting sand make is nearly impossible to navigate one’s boat. Quillebeuf is an important place on the Seine, by virtue of its position between two segments of the river – all boats have to break journey in the town in order to sail safely up or down the river. Interestingly, on the right-hand side of the painting, there is concealed amongst the grey-blue waves what appears to be the topmast of a ship, faint but undeniable upon closer inspection. The destructiveness of nature is thus portrayed, complemented by the presence on the left-hand side of the painting of a seagull attacking a fish, another instance of death in nature.
This picture always reminds me of a quote from De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis (1845), about a Jamaican port city, Savannah-la-Mar, that was hit by a tidal wave:
‘God smote Savannah-la-Mar, and in one night, by earthquake, removed her, with all her towers standing and population sleeping […] And God said – “Pompeii did I bury and conceal from men through seventeen centuries: this city I will bury, but not conceal. She shall be a monument to men of my mysterious anger; set in azure light through generations to come: for I will enshrine her in a crystal dome of my tropic seas”‘.
The first image below, a rather Van Gogh-esque painting, is the work of French painter, Maurice Utrillo, who has been neglected save in the postcard industry, where his paintings of Montmartre have been reproduced prolifically. A born-and-bred Parisian, Utrillo painted with the palette of Post-Impressionism. What is it about Paris that lends the city to endless pictorial and photographic representation? Van Gogh’s images of Paris, for example, are captivating, despite the fact that they are lesser known in comparison to his Provencal pictures.
This brings me to the question of the reproduction of images: What does the digitization of paintings do to art? Owning a digital image of a painting is akin to collecting a postcard. Sontag is spot on: ‘To collect photographs is to collect the world’. But this is a problematic practice, as Sontag argues expertly in her book. Aside from its more severe consequences, the act of looking at the picture in the palm of our hands will never rival the gallery experience, no matter how tenacious the advertising campaign of art websites (here I have in mind websites such as Google Art Project & WikiPaintings). Examining a Van Gogh up-closed reminded me that aside from the 2D image, a painting is in fact a three-dimensional, tangible object, composed of pigment and matter, a material thing of clumped paint that rises out from the flat canvas.
Can one linger and contemplate before a digital image the same way that one would in front of an actual work of art? What happens to the experience of fascination if the images of art become all too familiar, if the painting’s details and colours can no longer arrest the eye? In many ways, online galleries diminish the authentic experience of art. In a crowded gallery, it is easy to consider familiar Van Gogh paintings such as the Starry Night as ‘seen-and-done’ within a few seconds simply because we’ve all already seen it countless times. Vintage postcards have become an art form in themselves (mainly due to their value as records of late 19th- and early 20th-century society), but would we ever arrive at a day when digital copies can claim the same value?
It’s difficult to decide the ideal starting place for a discussion, so I will just talk about the first thing that comes to mind: J. M. W. Turner, since I’ve just recently presented a paper on his works. A virtual tour of Tate’s online Turner gallery always yields fascinating discoveries of his lesser-known paintings, many of which I find more pleasing than his more famous pictures. I love Turner’s Florence paintings, particularly the view of the city from San Miniato (see above) – the view in real life is breath-taking. Turner’s topographical and architectural scenes are distinguished for their details and their relative faithfulness to the actual landscape. This Florence painting was probably based on a sketch that Turner did during his 1819 tour of Italy, though the painting itself would have been completed c. 1827, in connection with a project that Turner was working on for the publisher Charles Heath, entitled Picturesque Views of Italy – unfortunately, the book never appeared, due to the publisher’s financial difficulties.