Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Flickering Fact

J. M. W. Turner, by Cornelius Varley

            In my teenage years I read a couple of books by G. K. Chesterton, and they practically knocked me off my feet.  I of course had no idea what the man looked like, but on the basis of his cleverness and his Englishness I formed a very strong visual image: suave, svelte, elegant, dapper, clipped moustache—John Barrymore, Errol Flynn type.  Only much later did I see an actual photograph of Chesterton—rumpled, fleshy, messy, Falstaff type.  Though I recognized the absurdity of my response, I felt a strange sense of unease, disappointment, almost betrayal.  There is a potency in the visual image.

            About fifteen years ago—I remember the time only because the conversation came up in the context of the “Y2K” flap—a student told me that “everybody knew” that the CIA was behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  The person who told me this was a very intelligent young man who was born probably about fifteen years after the event to which he referred.

            I was shocked—not that the CIA had killed Kennedy but that a potential honors graduate at Princeton would casually believe it had.  My remonstrance, if it disquieted him at all, did so only as a further demonstration of just how successful the conspiracy had been.  Thus alerted, I began to appreciate that many of his contemporaries held a similar view.  And some of them would cite as a source of their information a 1992 film by Oliver Stone, JFK.   I had seen this film and thought it junk from A to Izzard.  Others regarded it as visual history.

            Then last week a couple of experiences revived the issue in my mind.  I came upon a newspaper article by Jeffrey Zacks, a psychologist at Washington University, entitled “Why Movie Facts Prevail.”  I think it summarizes the argument of his recent book, which I’ll hope to read when it works its way through our library’s acquisitions process, with the enticing title of Flicker: Your Brain on Movies.  The gist of Zack’s research is this: cinematic images tend to trump other modes of cognition.  You can read a detailed history of the battle of Gettysburg, but the facts on the page can easily be conquered by a contradictory and fictitious cinematic version.  So for millions of Americans the CIA will remain the author of the Kennedy assassination.  The current hit film Selma is likely to command the historical view of Lyndon Johnson for the next generation.

            Pictorial images require little connection with empirical reality to be convincing.  I could have continued to imagine Chesterton however I pleased had I not encountered the inconvenience of an actual photograph of the man.  Of course most of the vast eons of history were innocent of the camera obscura.   Probably the most copiously depicted human being in history is Jesus.  Not merely is there no photograph of Jesus, there is not a single word of physical description of him in the gospels.  But everybody knows what Jesus looked like: white guy with big hair, mournful eyes, soupy expression and a slightly disheveled bathrobe.  That is the power of the popular pictorial image.

strangely familiar

            Well, Joan and I and our good friend of half a century, the artist Susan Hockaday, went off last week to see the current movie about J. M. W. Turner.  He may or may not be the greatest painter who ever lived, but he’s right up there as they say.  It seems only days ago—though I now realize it was a few months—that I was writing with enthusiasm about my visit to the huge Turner exhibition at the Tate Britain.  So we could not miss the Mike Leigh film, entitled simply Mister Turner.

            I recommend it for some excellent acting and, especially, for its many moments of superbly beautiful photography.  But I left the movie house grumpy.  What I will call the “historical” Turner was a complicated, difficult, and by no means entirely admirable fellow.  The less we actually know about historical figures, the greater the freedom of the biographer or the actor, and Timothy Spall, who impersonates Turner, exploits the useful lacunae very effectively in presenting us with an indefatigable and monomaniacal genius, selfish, socially gauche, inarticulate, and joyless and inefficient in his bovine sex life.  Someone should have told him that it works best with the pants off.

J. M. W. Turner, by Mike Leigh and Timothy Spall

            Well, OK.  Compared with what Tom Hulce did to Mozart in Amadeus, I have to give them a pass on Turner himself.  What left me more or less fuming was Joshua McGuire’s rendition of a minor character in the film, the young John Ruskin, who is presented as a simpering fop.  It is impossible that this callow child whose only known accomplishment seems to be his wife’s sexual frustration could ever have become the sagest of the Victorian Sages and the brilliant writer whose Modern Painters permanently and unassailably established Turner’s grandeur.  Who reads Ruskin any more?  In my experience, not even very many graduate students of literature.  But in 1976, when I was conducting a series of seminars on “Morris and Medievalism” at the William Morris Centre in London, I had to read deeply in his copious works.  I left the experience knowing that I had encountered a great mind and a great aesthetic sensibility.  It pains me to think that thousands who have never read a word of the man will go through life informed merely by “movie ‘facts’.”



  1. Hello Professor,

    You are certainly right about Turner - and Ruskin.

    About Turner, I can say little. His paintings provoke awe, with their strong emotion and superb pictoralism.

    Ruskin is an exceedingly important thinker. Although he harbored many crackpot social and political ideas, his eye was clear and his thinking about architecture and art original and penetrating. His opinions on the high Renaissance must seem strange to many modern readers, but his embrace of the gothic, Byzantine, and yes, Islamic elements of the greatest Venetian buildings is surely bracing and refreshing. The Stones of Venice is a great work. I am not familiar with his work on Turner.

    His personal life seems to have been singular, to say the least. Mary Luytens (Links) - who had quite an interesting life, herself, in certain respects, prepared as I am sure you know an excellent edition of Effie Ruskin's letters, which reveal little that is intimate about her 6 years of marriage to Ruskin, but somewhat more about life in Venice. Although I regret her pro-Austrian sympathies. W.D. Howells also wrote an engaging memoir about his years in Venice, about 10 years later, that is less pro-Austrian.

  2. I had exactly the same reaction to "Ruskin" in the film. It's especially strange since he was, after all, Turner's great champion, so why would the film want to suggest he was a daffy and childish dandy? (Though at the same time we do see that his great passion is criticism, exercised on anything, even gooseberries.) But I liked and was largely persuaded by all the contextual elements of the artist's life in the 19C: pigments to be bought (if not too dear), paints to be ground and stretchers nailed; milling and carping at the Royal Academy; someone making a mess and someone cleaning it up (or not).

  3. Thank you for the very cogent observation about Ruskin's governing passion.

    I'm remembering that Ruskin it was whom the great J.A. McN. Whistler sued for libel. (" I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." -- Not sure why he mentioned Cockney impudence, since Whistler was an American. His great-uncle Zephaniah Kingsley was a Florida planter who was married to a Mandingo woman, Anna Madgigine Jai.)

    Whistler won the case, and was awarded damages of a farthing. Court costs were shared.