Book Review: "Turner" by Michael Bockemühl
What's it About?
Turner by Michael Bockemühl is a compact study of how the artist's work developed. The book charts JMW Turner's progress from his early, famously-precise architectural drawings to his watercolours and finally to his almost-abstract oil paintings which attracted praise and bewilderment in seemingly equal measure.
The reproduced images of Turner's works provide a solid chronological introduction to his work, suitable for a reader who may be discovering these paintings for the first time.
However, this book would also be of interest to those who are seeking a deeper understanding of Turner's working methods, in particular his use and application of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's book, Theory of Colours which was a dominant influence on Turner's later works.
Bockemühl's text offers detailed analysis of many of Turner's paintings, and aims to shed a fresh insight into the artist's intent.
Turners Paintings and Drawings of Scotland
About the Author
Michael Bockemühl was born in Dresden, Germany, in 1943. He was the youngest of five brothers, and went on to study art history, philosophy, and ecclesiastical history in Munich and Bochum.
As a student of the Ruhr-Universität in 1968, he founded the Free University Seminar with a few fellow students. The ideas developed there later flowed into the conception of the Studium fundamentale of the University of Witten/Herdecke.
In 1979 Bockemühl received the Ruhr-Universität's annual prize for his dissertation on Rembrandt.
He qualified as a professor in 1984 at the Ruhr University, where he lectured in art history. In 1990 he became the holder of the Chair of Art Science, Aesthetics and Art Education at the Faculty of Cultural Reflection, the private University of Witten / Herdecke. In 1994 he became the dean of this faculty, and was a visiting professor at the Faculty of Social and Economic Sciences at the University of Innsbruck, at the Faculty of Education of the University of Bielefeld, and also at the Faculty of Economics of the University of Stockholm.
He wrote seventeen books on art, and had published six of his essays in other books.
He died in 2009, in Herdecke, a town in the district of Ennepe-Ruhr-Kreis, North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany.
What's to Like?
As art books go, this is an economical edition published by Taschen, placing it well within the financial means of most people. On page 96, at the end of the Notes section, the reader learns that Taschen is a carbon neutral publisher who has a partnership with the Instituto Terra, a reforestation program in Brazil. What's not to like about that, hmm?
This book's production, however, is of a surprisingly high quality. The prints have been done well, and the text is intelligent and insightful.
The author is not reluctant to criticise Turner's work, either. For example, with the oil painting Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying - Typhon Coming On. Painted in 1840, this work depicts an old fashioned sailing ship illumined by an angry red and orange sky. The stormy sea is crowded by hungry fish, gulls, and the raised, flailing limbs of those who have been flung to their barbaric fate. Bockemühl's criticism was not for the inhumane subject matter but for the weakness of the figurative elements of the painting, which fail to be entirely convincing.
I particularly enjoyed reading Bockemühl's descriptions of Turner's working methods, of how the artist began many of his later paintings, having developed methods which suited his own approach. For example, Turner's preparatory watercolour paintings became known as his Colour Begininngs, and he would have these ready in advance of beginning the actual painting.
For his oil paintings, in later years he would approach them in a very loose, intuitive way, seeing what the shapes implied to his imagination, which was in total contrast to his early work and in contradiction to his theories as expounded by his lectures years earlier at the Royal Academy.
I found this book intelligent and interesting, and certainly I learned a lot more about Turner's work and methods.
What's Not to Like?
I have to say that this book could have benefited by having an index, enabling the reader to cross-reference individual paintings with the text.
Some of the colour plates are rather small. Venetian Scene measures only 12cms wide and 10.5cms in height. The Scarlet Sunset fills half a page, while other, larger plates spill over the centrefold. Remember, however, that this is an economy-based publication and so perhaps this is to be expected; it is the colour plates which drive up the production cost of art books.
JMW Turner at Tate Britain
The biographical and bibliographical information in this article came from:
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© 2019 Adele Cosgrove-Bray