The sun is God' - Madonna Magazine

The sun is God'

Michael McGirr 10 March 2017

‘The sun is God’, artist J. M. W. Turner is said to have uttered on his deathbed. Whatever he might have meant by these words, they indicate the importance of colour and light in his work: he has been hailed the ‘painter of light’.

Some years ago, I used to visit art galleries with a friend of mine who had an intellectual disability. I enjoyed his company enormously, not least because he saw paintings with a fresh pair of eyes. He hated humbug.

I can recall one occasion on which we found ourselves in a group with a very serious tour leader. The leader seemed keen to impress upon the plodding mortals in her contingent that it would take years to be able to appreciate the paintings with the same level of sophistication that she did. Of course, expertise should be appreciated but this woman wore her learning heavily.

My friend was less polite than the rest of us but his response was genuine. He simply started laughing. The more serious she became, the funnier he found her. The guide was wrong footed and asked my friend if something was the matter.

‘Yes’, he replied. ‘You.’

It’s strange that the inability to lie is sometimes seen as part of intellectual disability.

One of the best outings I had with my friend was when we went to see a visiting exhibition of paintings by J. M. W. Turner (1775 to 1851). Turner’s paintings are often a feast of colour and powerful but elusive emotion. My friend was overwhelmed and ecstatic. He kept shaking his head with joy and saying ‘Wow.’ He said ‘Wow’ over and over again. Turner was speaking to him with a language in which my friend was both comfortable and articulate. It was beyond words.

The gallery was crowded but I recall the pleasure those near us took in my friend’s response and how he allowed them to stop being analytical and to simply rejoice in the soul stirring images. Some of the paintings were very large. They seemed to swallow you whole. It was actually difficult to leave their grip and move on.

Anyone who has seen the recent movie, Mr Turner, will know that Bill Turner was a most unconventional character. The word eccentric hardly does him justice. Indeed, he developed some oddities that Mike Leigh’s terrific movie does not include. For long periods, he ate only sausages and nothing else. Not only that, but they had to be sausages from one supplier. His relationships with people were bizarre and his intimate life was hard to fathom.

Timothy Spall’s superb performance in the film brings out Turner’s ineptitude in many forms of communication, especially when it came to using words in a socially refined manner. Turner’s childhood was shaped by the poor mental health of his mother as a result of which he was sent from the urban environment of Covent Garden, where his father was a barber, to places close to the water.

There is one scene in Mr Turner in which the great painter is taking part, along with other artists, in a prestigious show. At the last minute, he adds a hideous blob of red paint to one of his beach scenes. Everyone is horrified. But, like a magician performing a trick, Turner turns the blob into a little buoy, perfectly at home in the scene. He was working intuitively rather than logically.

This is worth remembering when it comes to a painting such as The Morning after the Deluge: Moses Writing the Book of Genesis (1843), one of Turner’s later works. In logical terms, it is a confusing picture. After all, the story of Noah and the flood is not really connected with Moses and it’s hard to imagine anyone writing a book in a great swirling ocean. The painter deliberately wants us to experience a certain amount of bewilderment.

If you look closely at the painting, you will see the heads of drowned people in the ocean. The shape of anything that humanity may claim to have created, such as a ship, is blurred and indistinct. A frail rope is clearly useless. The ocean is a threatening and violent place, an image of chaos. Yet it is also shaped as a perfect circle and bathed in light, images of order and understanding. As with a great deal of Turner’s work, chaos and order are inseparable. They are not opposites but two closely entwined experiences. Indeed, this painting has a companion piece, a mirror image painted at the same time, called Darkness and Light: The Evening of the Deluge.

In the middle of all this, is the tiny, fragile figure of Moses. He is hardly the powerful prophet on top of a mountain with the word of God carved into tablets of stone. On the contrary, he appears completely overwhelmed by the natural world around him. His pen seems inadequate for the purpose of describing the experience he is part of. He is like a fisherman with a tiny net and a huge haul of fish. Yet he is transparent: something is being communicated not so much by him as through him.

The painting makes the point, without using words, that all our attempts to describe God are limited. The life of faith is seldom neat and tidy. Turner’s world is beautiful but never at rest. He challenges believers to simply say ‘Wow.’

Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Morning after the Deluge: Moses Writing the Book of Genesis, c. 1843, oil on canvas, 78.7 x 78.1 cm, Tate Britain, London.

Turner’s companion painting, Darkness and Light: The Evening of the Deluge, opposes cool colours to the warm ones in The Morning after the Deluge.

Michael McGirr is the author of many books including Ideas to Save Your Life (Nov 2021). Books That Saved My Life, Snooze: the Lost art of sleep, Bypass; The story of a road and Things You Get For Free. His religious books include Finding God’s Traces and Doorways into Hope and Joy at Advent and Christmas. He has much experience as a secondary teacher in the realm of Faith and Mission and currently works for Caritas Australia. He lives in Melbourne with Jenny and their three children.


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