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Paintings in Proust: Vesuvius Erupting by J.M.W. Turner

In Proust’s Swann’s Way, the narrator’s grandmother is described as one who inculcates in her grandson a reverence for the “elevated ideals.” Infinitely disdainful of the mechanical nature of replica, when shown photograph of the magnificent Mount Vesuvius his grandmother dismisses it with a lofty query as of whether other more acknowledged artists did paintings of the volcano in the first place. She is having in mind the great J.M.W. Turner, whose depiction of Vesuvius in flame displays, in her view, “a stage higher in the scale of art.”

The enduring fascination with volcanoes was especially evident in the 19th century, which saw an irregularly high frequency of Vesuvius eruptions that, at the time, alarmed many of the imminent cataclysm that a thousand of years before destroyed the city of Pompeii. Turner, according to a number of sources, may not be amongst the first-hand witnesses of those eruptions, but badgered his geologist friends, John MacCulloch and Charles Stokes, for scientific knowledge of the phenomena. As such, Turner’s sketchbooks are full of detailed records and drawings of Vesuvius, on the strength of which he was said to make his bewildering depiction of the erupting volcano. In it, the shimmering colours and the brisk brushwork culminate in a glorious symphony that possesses of a quality of, what Yeats would call, the “terrible beauty.” Turner succeeds in embodying with this painting the “thickness” of art, a virtue the grandmother in Swann’s determines as a supremacy exclusive to high art, distinguishing it from other vulgar, banal commodities that clutter up our daily existence.

Of what is vulgar and what is beautiful can be measured in various ways. As early as the 13th century Italy, philosophers were already suggesting the volatile nature of beauty. Modifying on the old conception that beauty is only permitted if according with the dictates of moral goodness, Thomas Aquinas asserted: “The good is that towards the possession of which an appetite tends.” What is good depends on what one’s appetite decides, i.e. what one desires of, a sentiment that should be governed solely by one’s individual self, without the unduly interference from outward influence. Though not saying if beauty also encompasses aspects that are not morally acceptable, many would later interpret Aquinas’s argument as premonitory of a new trend of thought, that of “the beauty of ugliness.”

Not exactly an ugly painting but neither is it traditionally beautiful, Turner’s Vesuvius Erupting (1817) is a perfect example of creating beauty whilst sacrificing the old ideals. The figures are sketchy, the brushstrokes are rough, the colours go pell-mell as if they were spurted onto the canvas from a tube- and yet the result is spontaneous and, not many would disagree, captivating. History has testified to the well-exercised lesson that no value is definitive or immutable; even a canonic work is obliged to undergo the tests of every succeeding age to justify its uniqueness.


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