Six Damn Fine Degrees #56: J. M. W. Turner, The Fighting Temeraire (1839)

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

A year ago, a medical professional recommended that I reserve a spot in my apartment for an object or an image that would just be there for me to look at and enjoy. I made a mental list of possible candidates, getting to my number one by process of elimination, so when a picture of the young Monica Bellucci ended up in second place, it was finally clear what I had suspected all along. I had a framed print of Turner’s Fighting Temeraire leaning against the wall, still unhung. It had been on the list early on, but I never thought it would have made it to the top spot. So up there it went.

The funny thing is, I must have had that print for a long time. I remember going to a big Turner exhibition a few years ago with a painter friend of mine, but I don’t remember buying it there. I don’t know why or where I got it, so my own choice caught me sideways.

The Fighting Temeraire, an old battleship, is done with fighting and gets tugged to its last resting place, probably an old shipyard. And of course, since it’s a Turner, the sky is on fire, dwarfing the Temeraire‘s last sooty breaths. And yet it’s a calm picture; both boats seem to trundle away from their spectators; the city and two more ships are even further in the back, towards the horizon. The city is visible from far away, almost as an afterthought at the right edge of the painting. It’s the vessels, the water and the bright sky that quietly dominate the view.

Remember the Mike Leigh movie Mr. Turner from 2014? Timothy Spall plays the artist at his cantankerous best and wouldn’t take advice or criticism from anyone; he walks through picturesque landscapes with his easel until he decides that he has found the spot for his latest work. Since Leigh’s Turner is such a silent prickly pear, there is not much dialogue in the movie; instead, you can see him at work a lot of the time, his back to the camera.

So why not Monica? I guess because the Turner depicts something that is still there but on its way out, slowly, almost imperceptibly. It’s still there for us to study, to admire, to inspect, but not for much longer. There is an angle of nostalgia to the painting, but does not tinge the whole atmosphere. Why else would Hollywood have its heroes walk, drive or ride into the sunset at the end of the movie?

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