Monday, November 8, 2010

The Slave Ship, Turner

In Joseph Mallord William Turner’s painting, The Slave Ship (originally titled Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying - Typhon coming on) nature is once again used as a background to human activity, a vehicle of manipulatable symbolism in the artist’s agenda.  Painted in 1840, it shows a slave cargo ship retreating from an oncoming storm. Looking closer, Turner’s audience can see that this is not simply a ship leaving a typhon in its wake. Lines from Turner’s own 1812 poem can illuminate the tragedy which his painting depicts: 

“Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;
Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds
Declare the Typhon's coming.
Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard
The dead and dying - ne'er heed their chains
Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope!
Where is thy market now?”
To coincide with the controversial topic of the slave trade that he was addressing with this painting,  Turner turns to a nature of the most sublime nature, one of “awe mixed with terror” (Kleiner, 795). The frantic nature of his strokes and the tumultuous merging of vibrant colors pulls the eye towards the natural, almost seemingly super-natural, scene being depicted. It is this fantastical setting that ultimately works to draw one’s eye to the very real, inhumane act being committed in the swirling oceans.  Turner’s Slave Ship in a way harkens back to the awe-inspiring natural scenes of the cave paintings in Lascaux in that “the relative scale of the minuscule human forms compared with the vast sea and overarching sky reinforces the sense of the sublime, especially the immense power of nature over humans” (Kleiner, 796). However, the commentary that most viewers come away with is that of the injustice being done to the African slaves, evidence to Turner’s merging of not just simply nature but also a human element as well. It is not to go without saying though that the two, nature and humans, are not put in a most interesting dialogue, causing one to ask how far humans are going against nature in these acts against other fellow inhabitants of this shared earth. 

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