Visual Art

As the centrepiece of an exhibition that explores the meaning of light, J. M. W. Turner remains a radical proponent of the sublime. By Mahmood Fazal.

Light: Works from Tate’s Collection at ACMI

Patrons at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, view James Turrell’s Raemar,  Blue.
Patrons at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, view James Turrell’s Raemar, Blue.
Credit: Phoebe Powell

Light is such a primordial part of existence that it’s difficult to grasp what it is. Life itself couldn’t exist without it. But what is light? What does it mean to see?

When visible light is absorbed by our retina, photoreceptors transform the light into electrical signals. The signals vibrate through the optic nerve into the brain, where the signals are reconstructed to make sense of the stimulus. There are colours of light that our mind can’t reconstruct, such as radio waves, infrared, ultraviolet, X-rays or gamma rays. In religious symbolism, this invisible light becomes a presence that faith helps us to perceive.

In the languages of Christian faith, the devout discover something in nothing. “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, and it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness.” Darkness wasn’t the absence of light: light was inherent within it and was the first part of creation. In biblical Hebrew, the opening phrase is made of two words: “to exist” and “light”. In the Koine Greek Septuagint, the phrase is translated as “to come into being”. In the Vetus Latina versions used before the Bible was translated into the English vulgate, it’s “let light exist”.

Light: Works from Tate’s Collection at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) examines both the physical and spiritual aspects of light. Curated by Tate, it features more than 70 works spanning 200 years of art history, with works ranging from Romantic artists such as John Constable to present-day artists such as Tacita Dean or James Turrell.

As a pilot, Turrell came to know light for its atmospheric quality. “Light is not so much something that reveals,” he says, “as it is itself the revelation.” His work Raemar, Blue (1969) silences the observer with a wave of summer sky-blue light. There’s a quality in Turrell’s work that echoes his Quaker upbringing. He cites how his grandmother described their holy meetings: “ ‘You go inside to greet the light.’ ” In the work, a white rectangle is suspended like a monolith’s silhouette. We feel light’s materiality as the blue tone begins to tower over us, to warp and pull. The glow becomes an abyss our eyes can’t make sense of but that we feel in our stomach – an absence.

Absence is a motif throughout the exhibition. In Vilhelm Hammershøi’s painting Interior, Sunlight on the Floor (1906), a beam of light through a kitchen window streams life into an unoccupied home. In Tacita Dean’s short film Disappearance At Sea (1996), close-up shots of rotating lighthouse bulbs are intercut with long shots looking out at sea. The sun rises and dusk arrives. There’s no sign of people as the lighthouse swings its beam across the cliff face towards the sea until everything is black. We’re left alone with a paradox: are we experiencing the presence of darkness or an absence of light?

At the centre of the exhibition is arguably the greatest painter of light that Western culture has produced, the Romantic artist J.M.W. Turner, who was ordained the “painter of light”. Face-to-face with nothing on his canvas, Turner understood the illusory capacity of light. He once said, “The sun is God.”

Turner’s final Christian painting, The Angel Standing in the Sun (1846), shines in the corner of the gallery in a section titled “Spiritual Light”. He was 71 years old when he conjured his final glimpse of Eden. I watch as a bearded man with a tote bag photographs the painting with a flash from his iPhone. As Turner might have it, we are left in the afterglow of humankind’s fall.

On the canvas, the angel is suspended by the sun’s amber ring, entranced by a pearl blur, her mouth agape. A flaming sword guards the path to the tree of life. Ripples circle from the white vantage point outwards. There’s chaos hidden in the opaque flood of light that is burning the world away: a man watches his rib cage blow out from his chest, a child’s belly wobbles as their leg burns to a cinder, a chained snake’s tongue bursts back from its mouth, a girl in a dress has pulled off her head and raises the smoking offering towards the cloud. Above everything is the black tune of careless birds flapping their wings.

In Cecilia Powell’s book Turner in the South: Rome, Naples, Florence, she reminds us that when Turner was outdoors, he would note colours down in words, before resuscitating the memory on the canvas in his studio. For Turner, words functioned like prayer, invoking his remembrance. When we look at his paintings, the transformation rewinds: the images possess us with a numinous current. When Turner articulates the sublime, the viewer struggles to resist the levitation.

Turner’s orbit of chaos is left on the fringes of the painting, tucked behind smudges of opaque brushstrokes. In the centre, the angel floats fearful and yet full of grace, filling the viewer with a sense of encouragement or hope as it looks towards a new dawn.

On the opposite wall, the story of creation is the subject of Turner’s painting Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis (1843). From a distance, the painting is a dizzying collision of red, orange and blue that highlights our subordination to nature. As the viewer approaches the painting, an underwater serenity emerges, a stillness and channelling of voice.

The work is accompanied by lines from Turner’s poem, “Fallacies of Hope”: “The ark stood firm on Ararat; th’ returning Sun / Exhaled earth’s humid bubbles and emulous of light / Reflected her lost forms, each in prismatic guise / Hope’s harbinger, ephemeral as the summer fly / Which rises, flits, expands, and dies.”

Through the mist emerges an out-of-focus silhouette of Moses. When light hits the water, droplets of mist, fog or clouds, the beam is wildly diffracted as its waves oscillate into a circular haze. The result is an abstract spattering of cool colours that are drawn towards the figure, even as the livelier, darker tones ripple away.

Turner’s interest in Goethe’s book Theory of Colours led to experiments with the afterimage – the ghost-like trace left on a retina after seeing an image. When we shut our eyes, our minds can riddle the work with a spiritual quality: as we unspool the Genesis narrative we project something of ourselves.

This painting captures the aftermath of the deluge, when God flooded the earth in the first baptism that cleansed the world of sin. In the wake of the disaster, Turner notes the weight on Moses as he translates God’s will into human law. It’s a question of responsibility, to each other or to nature.

The first time Turner painted in the open air was when he created Walton Bridges (1805). Strings of sunlight pierce the clouds like rain over the bridge. In the foreground, steeped in shadows, cows and workers prepare for work. Another landscape, Sun Setting over a Lake (c.1840), is the final Turner painting in the “Spiritual Light” room. Lit by a small yellow dot in the bottom left corner, the sky swallows the bulk of the canvas. The nostalgia of the magic hour isn’t lost in the crosswinds of burning colour that fold gracefully into the sky.

Turner painted early in the Industrial Revolution and was fascinated by the effects that the byproducts of industrialisation had on atmospheric light. He noticed the disruption of the natural order and offered light-filled prayers on canvas. Now, as the climate tips over into crisis, we’re at the other end of this disruption. In 2016, British scientists monitoring how night lights contributed to premature budbursts in four different tree species discovered that light pollution may be causing earlier springs. As artificial light sources keep our cities operating, natural ecosystems and plant cycles are falling out of sync.

Turner often spat on his canvases, or wiped them with tobacco juice and mouldy beer, to make them “look better”. Beauty is such a loaded term, but in Turner’s work it’s the bluff that hides the destructive hand we’ve played. 

Light: Works from Tate’s Collection is showing at ACMI until November 13.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 9, 2022 as "Divine illuminations".

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