Monday, 11 May 2009

JMW Turner - Ulysses deriding Polyphemus

Turner created a mythological painting that Ruskin felt was perhaps his finest accomplishment (and which was duly copied by Moran a copy that hung in his studio for the rest of his life.)

J. Turner, Ulysses deriding Polyphemus Homer's Odyssey, 1829; composition study of the same
The mythological subject matter here allows Turner to 'personify' nature more gracefully than in the previous example. In this episode from 'The Odyssey,' Ulysses, having put out Polyphemus's eye and escaped with his surviving crew from the Cyclops's cave, is making for open sea at top speed, while the wounded giant has been blindly throwing great boulders in an attempt to sink the ship. Knowing his prey has escaped, however, Polyphemus craftily asks the name of the one who maimed him. Ulysses, blinded in his own turn by pride, names himself, not realizing that Polyphemus will ask his divine father to take revenge on the wily Greek. As Michael Bockemuhl points out, in Turner's painting the 'divine' elements of the story are pictorially identified with the energies of nature:

Polyphemus' at upper left'can hardly be distinguished from his surroundings, almost disappearing into it Nereids and a number of mythical fish may be seen in front of the ship's bow. These figures, too, cannot be clearly distinguished from their background. The effect of their transparent forms is as if they were woven from the foam, the sparkle and the reflections of the water's surface, half-figure, half-glittering wavecrest.

But what I suspect most caught Moran's eye is that Turner has managed to compose this picture so as to create the same rotating, energizing movement of the spectator's eye without the heavy-handed visual metaphor of the Hannibal picture. As the composition study shows above, the eye travels around a 'diamond shape,' starting from Ulysses' ship, following a diagonal downwards past the rising sun to the sea, up along the sail of another ship, then bouncing off the edge of the canvas and running up along the gold-flecked clouds, finally dipping downward past Polyphemus on the hilltop, half-obscured with mist, and down to the dark note of the Cyclops' deadly cave. In doing so, the composition incorporates the not-very-visible protagonists into the larger pattern of the landscape about them, underlining the theme of the picture: that human nature is merely one part of the dynamic 'natural order.' The same energies that drive the tiny human Ulysses also drive the huge monster Polyphemus, while the thrust of the hero's escaping ship echoes the rising sun. Moreover, while Turner presents us with a glorious, golden-toned landscape as the setting in which an adrenalin-drunk Ulysses stupidly forgets himself and blabs his name, the painter does so to remind us that Nature, even when it presents itself as benevolent, hides a threatening power that will ultimately humble the pride of even the most heroic of men.

Full article here

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