A major reexamination of Turner's attitude to the human figure.
RUSKIN called them 'roly-poly bag-of-potatoes people' and referred to their 'round balls with four pink spots in them instead of faces'. Kenneth Clark thought they looked like currant buns, sausages and poached eggs. Turner's figures - those strange, dumpy characters that crop up like disfiguring graffiti on most of his landscapes - have always perplexed even his most fervent admirers. How could a great painter be so bad?
Take the Tate's War: The Exile and the Rock Limpet, exhibited in 1842. Against a lurid, vaporous seascape, bloodshot sun setting over incandescent waters, the exiled Napoleon muses (as Ruskin explained) on the fact that even a rock limpet has 'power and liberty, denied to him'. 'He is in black military boots,' sneered The Literary Gazette at the time, 'the continuous reflection of which from his toes in the water gives him the appearance of being erected upon two long stilts.' The Times poked fun at Turner's 'elongated Napoleon . . . running to seed in a redhot atmosphere of brimstone and brickdust.'
'Turner and the Human Figure', in the watercolours room of the Clore Gallery, is a brave exhibition, since it aims to reverse 150 years of received opinion and demonstrate Turner's skill as a painter of people. It never entirely proves its point, since there is always the evidence of the paintings in the rest of the Clore to show how bad Turner's figures could be - such unmitigated disasters as Pilate Washing his Hands or Shadrach, Meshech and Abednego in the Burning Fiery Furnace. But it does, nevertheless, suggest the importance that Turner himself attached to the figure in his art.
Much of the show is given over to a demonstration of the sheer range of Turner's interest in the human figure. This is the Turner who could sketch, in 1794, Sailors Getting Pigs on Board, a cast of energetic grotesques rendered in a wriggling, vigorously linear style - his attempt, perhaps, at being Rowlandson. It is the Turner who studies assiduously in the cast rooms and then in the life classes of the Royal Academy, and who also studies the labouring poor - hedgers and ditchers, gravel pit-workers bent by work - going about their daily grind.
It is Turner the tourist, studying his fellow-travellers as they toil up a steep hill, dogged gentlewomen with their skirts hitched up, or as they pause for roadside refreshment on a sunny day Between Mantes and Vernon. And it is the ribald, coarse Turner, who drew graphic depictions of sexual intercourse: a satyr pleasures a nymph and a disembodied penis couples with a disembodied vagina, in one of the few such sheets to have escaped the attentions of Ruskin, who burned the rest after Turner's death.
'Landscape,' wrote Samuel Palmer, 'is of little value but as it hints or expresses the haunts and doings of man.' He was expressing a critical commonplace: Turner inherited the old hierarchy of subject matter passed down by academic tradition and most recently enshrined in Reynolds' Discourses. This placed history painting - figure painting, of biblical or mythological subjects - at the top and descended by degrees to landscape and still life, considered the lowest of the genres since they dealt in depictions of inanimate matter.
Turner did not think of himself primarily as a landscape painter. Even the most cursory visit to the main body of the Clore Gallery - the real test of this exhibition's argument - reveals the emphasis he placed on painting classical or biblical subjects (Dido Building Carthage, The Holy Family) or depicting the momentous events of his own time (The Field of Waterloo). They might be poorly painted, but the figures in them had to be there, to obviate the charge that Turner was a mere landscapist.
The ways in which Turner uses his figures, and the way in which they seem constantly at odds with the rest of the painting that surrounds and, on occasion, engulfs them, reveals a fundamental division in his art. In his emphasis on natural flux, the fluidity of transitory phenomena like the reflection of light on water or its refraction through mist, Turner took Claude's sun- drenched haze to extremes of illegibility. His figures, by contrast, seem over-emphatically legible, hyperactively signalling the mythical or moral messages that Turner built into his art.
Turner's figures seem curiously and inappropriately Hogarthian, descendants from the Dutch tradition of painting where every detail, every gesture, is charged with significance. His pen and ink sketch, Marine Dabblers, features a group of fishermen's children who have launched a toy boat and witness its sinking with dismay. This is pure Hogarth: the fate of adults prefigured in a children's game. You find a very similar grouping in the considerably more ambitious finished oil, Dido Building Carthage, where the children launching their boat take their place in one one of Turner's customary allegories of hubris, suggesting the folly of Carthaginian empire-building. But the clumsiness, the insistent particularisation of Turner's figures ends up by overstating the artist's literary ambition, making it seem like a paranoid attempt to dress up the real subject of his painting - the dawning sun's rays, reflected in water - as a grand statement about history.
The clumsiness of Turner's figures seems still more jarring now than it must have done in his own time: finding in Turner a proto-abstractionist, modern sensibilities tend to prefer his rare empty landscapes, his late or unfinished works. But there is truth as well as prejudice in the modern conception of Turner: Turner's painting, as painting, is fundamentally inimical to the figure, which is gradually absorbed, obliterated or made simply irrelevant by whirling fields of pigment. Compare Turner's The Fall of an Avalanche in the Grisons with Philippe de Loutherbourg's slightly earlier painting of an avalanche, also in the Tate. In Loutherbourg's painting, cataclysm becomes the pretext for a study in fear. The prime subject of his picture is not the disaster but the reaction of his figures to it, the astonished passerby, the fleeing woman and praying man. There are no figures in Turner's avalanche; a vast boulder topples into a snowy abyss of paint.
Turner often seems to use the figures in his pictures to hold the strength of his painterly vision at bay, to restore a sense of meaning to a universe that has reverted to primal chaos: without the flaccid, boneless figures who writhe in the foreground of The Field of Waterloo, the painting would merely present the aspect of a hostile, explosive landscape. The emptiness of the later paintings is so challenging precisely because it turns the viewer into the protagonist, literally sucks the eye into its near-abstract swirl. Turner had hinted at such a possibility in his extraordinary Regulus of 1828, where he dramatised the story of the Roman general whose eyelids were cut off by the Carthaginians by confronting the viewer with a blazing mid-day sun; Regulus is not in the picture, he is the spectator.
Turner's sun, which became increasingly the signature of his art, is one of the most potent - and essentially non-literary, inexplicable - creations of art. Turner's clumsy figures, like his odd, cartoon-transfer Napoleon, often seem as if they are there specifically to block it out, to protect the viewer from its dazzling brilliance. No exhibition could ever hope to demonstrate that Turner was a great figure painter. But what this exhibition does suggest is the extent to which Turner needed the figure - and that he needed it, perhaps, to disguise the disturbing sense of mystery, of an essentially incomprehensible and unfathomable natural world, that is at the core of his art.