England’s leading art critic, Jonathan Jones reports Tate Britain’s new show “Turner’s Modern World” a megahit, “a roaring, wondrous whirlpool of a show.” But that’s not all he calls it.

Turner as Jackson Pollock?

Joseph Mallord William Turner was a 19th-century painter known for not only landscapes, but also stormy seascapes, shipwrecks, smoke, and steam, all of which allowed him to whip color around as freely as Abstract Expressionists did but a century before they even existed. This certified him as a bona fide modernist ahead of his time.

Bewitched and bewildered

Jonathan Jones waxed on with his praise for Turner, describing his visions of the sea “heart-stopping,” explaining that it’s packed with so many thrills, that he “criminally tempted to touch the surfaces.”

Turner shipwrecks are old

Such effusiveness gives the impression that either Jones hadn’t seen this painter’s work before or thought him not well known enough and in need of exhortation.

But Tate Britain makes plain that Turner is “revered as a great landscape painter.”

Unacceptable purple prose

Jones’s overblown report on the show could be forgiven. After all, who hasn’t overstated when blown away? Even so, it’s hard to overlook Jones' description of tragedies at sea as "erotically charged shipwrecks." Can anyone think that the 1,500-plus passengers on the Titanic drowning in the freezing waters of the Atlantic thought there was something erotic about it?

Repeat offender

Again, Jones could be given a pass for allowing the Tate Britain show to stir him to unseemly descriptions - if he did it just once in the throes of adulation. But he did it again, and this time, more egregiously.

Have you tried self-editing?

The painting that got his attention was the "Slave Ship." And, inexplicably he construed the dead and dying slaves, thrown overboard, as a "sexy shipwreck." As “thrilling” as this image may have been to him, it's incomprehensible to characterize those tossed into turbulent seas, in any way, as “sexy.”

The "Slave Ship" is based on an actual shipwreck in 1833 when the Amphitrite bound for a penal colony in Australia with 108 females and 12 children.

Checking the manifest?

Yet, Jones invokes his unseemly view again describing the "Slave Ship" as “an erotic fantasy.” Mind you, he’s referring to the tangle of women and children clinging together in a stormy sea. It’s unthinkable that Turner, a father of two daughters, could have viewed his picture of tragedy as a wet dream.

Setting the record straight

The Tate Britain website holds a far more sober view of the "Slave Ship" by pointing out how it reflects Turner’s awareness of real-life horrors such as enslaved people being thrown over the side of a British slave ship in 1781. There’s no hidden meaning here

Turner’s biographer, George Walter Thornbury, noted that the painter was partial to mystery and concealment. It’s hard to see Turner hiding anything in "Slave Ship" where all the monstrosities stare back at you.

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