Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Turner Erotica: Robert Begiebing on BookTalkNation.com

 April 24, 2013 at 7:00 pm EST, author Robert Begiebing will be interviewed live on BookTalkNation.com about his latest release, The Turner Erotica: A Biographical Novel. Begiebing is one of the most fascinating speakers I have had the pleasure to listen to and his knowledge of historical fiction writing is legendary. Don't miss this opportunity to talk with him, ask a question or just listen and learn from him.  

Go to BookTalkNation.com and register for the interview and send in a question for Robert Begiebing. A wonderful opportunity to hear from an amazing artist.

I have included below an excerpt from an interview with the author conducted by John Lemon, editor and owner of Ilium Press.   

Research. Art. History. Oh, and erotica.

The story behind the story is a story in itself...

JL: J. M. W. Turner was a revolutionary 19th century artist. Explain how his work changed the landscape of art.
April, 2013 from Ilium Press
RB: This is a big question probably not adequately answerable in an interview like this without sounding like a parody of glib art criticism. But let me try to lay out some points to suggest Turner's significance. Beyond sheer genius, being the youngest member elected to the Royal Academy, one of the first things that comes to mind is his taking the art of watercolors to a whole new level of technique and competence, demonstrating that water can be as important, detailed, and powerful as oil painting. He was a real pioneer on that front, just as he brought the techniques of oil painting to a new level, including original uses of some of the new pigments available in the early 19th century.
Turner is arguably the greatest painter Britain has produced, and his paintings have become national icons. He's buried in St. Paul's Cathedral along with other great British artists and national heroes such as Lord Nelson. The National Gallery accepted his posthumous bequest in 1856, representing 60 years of dedicated artistic labor—including something like 540 oil paintings, 1,600 finished watercolors, and 19,300 sketch studies.
He's the great master of advancing painterly traditions even while forging a new visionary Western art that reaches through the nineteenth and into the twentieth century. If he studied during his journeys abroad old masters such as Titian, Claude, and the Venetians—Canaletto, Titian, Tintoretto—particularly for confidence in his lengthy elucidation of light, he also studied his more local 18th-century predecessors from Blake to West to Mortimer. And he worked in all the traditional genres—history, biblical and mythological themes, landscapes, marines, and so on, avoiding only portraiture per se. Probably in part because he made a respectable living without the grind of portraiture so many lesser painters depended on for patronage. (After his famous self-portrait at age 26 or 27, he stayed away from it.) It's his land and seascapes that represent him at his most advanced and visionary—

JL: So, to be clear, it is as what you are calling a visionary artist that his influence is greatest?

Robert Begiebing
RB: Yes. As a visionary artist, reminiscent of his near contemporary Blake, Turner developed on canvas a perception of strong light eroding the solidity of the material world; he became, as one critic called him, a "painter of light, air, space." His life partakes of the character of his works: ever evolving, mysterious and puzzling to the observer who is forced to think; he avoids explanations, but was known to wink and say, "Make that out if you can." This deeper and mysterious attribute of his work seems to parallel his private life—his relations with women, his illegitimate children, and his private abodes and incognitos unknown to most of his acquaintances. He found a way to employ his whole self, including the mature and immature self, the eccentric self and the Royal Academician, a self that expresses an almost adolescent curiosity or fascination with the architecture and physiology and energy of sex (evident in the erotica), which seems, in turn, an expression of his inexhaustible appetite for observation.
His effects, traditional and visionary, lay beyond the competence of most artists at the time, including painting with his fingers, fingernails, brush ends, etc., along with the usual accoutrements. He's advancing the art at every level. And his influence is vast, not least unto the European and American Impressionists but also all the way into the mid-twentieth century abstract, non-objective painters, and no doubt beyond.

JL: Can you give a few examples?
RB: If Turner influenced the French (from Delacroix in 1825 to the Impressionists in 1870) who used his example pointing the way nearer the heart of Light more than he influenced English painters, the Americans above all developed a devotion to Turner. As early as the 1830s American artists such as Benjamin West and Washington Allston championed Turner as did William Ellery Channing in the North American Review. Thomas Cole studied Turner and met him. Fredrick Church was deeply influenced, as was Abba May Alcott, described as a "female Turner." And then there are the American Luminists, of the 1860s mostly: Fitz Hugh Lane, John Frederick Kensett, Martin Johnson Heade. Their studies of light and atmosphere were more generally serene, but they are a sort of Constable meets Turner group. All these Americans were suggesting on canvas the palpability of light; if forms are isolated structurally, they are tied together coloristically through a golden glow or blue tonality playing over them. Turner is not without influence on the Transcendentalist writers as well, in the sense that they seek the divinity of light and submergence of one's personality in Divine power. Charles Eliot Norton mounted an exhibition in America and Ralph Waldo Emerson read Modern Painters.
Thomas Moran is called "The American Turner." By late 1860s and 70s the American palettes grow even lighter and more colorful as American artists prepare for the full impact of impressionism in the 1880s-90s (studying the ways light affects color relationships as well as compositional organization): think of Mary Cassatt, Childe Hassam, William Merritt Chase, even John Singer Sargent. And then there is James McNeill Whistler whose gestural manner and use of color for moods, as if he were creating music and poetry, looks ahead to the abstractionist expressionists.
Is it too far a reach to suggest that in the twentieth century, to take just two examples, Rothko's bands and blocks of color and Jackson Pollock's energized brush strokes and gestural splashes and power drips of paint display a chain of influence? Look at Pollock's Sounds in the Grass: Shimmering Substance. And come to think of it, Motherwell spoke of Turner's lead in organizing "states of feeling" as "questions of light, color, weight, solidity, airiness, lyricism…." Turner valued not only cosmic energy in his paintings, he adumbrated these much later artists in his quest for emotionality, for unconscious energy, for nature's elemental forces. It's very difficult for me to look at some of these abstract expressionists without seeing the familiar visionary subjectivity in Turner's late works.

JL: There has been a significant amount of controversy around the theft and destruction of the Turner erotica sketches. Explain your research that leads you to believe this really occurred and by John Ruskin's hand.
RB: By the documentary evidence available to us, the destruction most likely did occur. If you credit the documentary evidence (it boils down to four documents, letters and diary entries) you don't end up trying to prove a negative (i.e., no holocaust) through reasonable speculations and extrapolations. Just before or just after someone's death, the burning of potentially embarrassing documents was not at all uncommon in the nineteenth century. One of the most famous instances is Isabel Burton's burning of Sir Richard Burton's manuscripts and papers after his death. She cited Ruskin's burning of the Turner erotica as one excuse for her doing so, to preserve another great man's reputation.
There is some debate, however, over how much Turner erotica was burned, or even whether any was, since Turner scholar Ian Warrell posited another way to look at the surviving erotic studies in a long academic essay on the matter. Warrell was tentative and exploratory about a possible interpretation of evidence that might at least suggest the immolation never occurred, but the press (The New York Times and The Guardian) got wind of Warrell's essay and turned the matter into a "case closed" and "we've all been fooled by this legend" news story, in the sensational, absolutist manner journalists are too often prone to feed us benighted citizens in the interests of commerce.
On the other hand, the specifics of the theft by narrator Stillman's hand are fictional though plausible, given what we know of Stillman and the rather mysterious falling out he actually had with Ruskin, his one-time mentor.

Check out all of Robert Begiebing's books at his website www.begiebing.com

Visit Ilium Press at www.iliumpress.com

Interview reproduced with author permission.