With a stiff neck from watching a one hundred and fifty minute film, I walked out of the Riviera Theater in Santa Barbara on the first day of daylight saving to see a viscous twilight settling over the bay. Lights had begun to appear across the darkling plain of downtown and at the shore's edge, a white twig-like line illuminated with strings of light was etched into the bay - Stearns Wharf: reduced by distance and the scattering of light through the dust and pollution of earth's atmosphere to a filament, a tiny scratch on my retinal canvas.
I had, indeed, just seen Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh's grand biopic of the early nineteenth century painter. I was primed - stretched and gessoed - ready to receive the faintest optical stimulations of atmosphere, earth and ocean. What I got, as I blinked into the early evening's light, was a cineramic shot of the edenic, sub-tropical, crepuscular, Southern Californian, Spanish provincial revival, stage-set fantasy that is Santa Barbara seen from the Elysian heights, above the Mission, on Alameda Padre Serra.
The Riviera Theater is housed in the auditorium of the old Normal School of Manual Arts and Home Economics, built in 1909. The campus later morphed into the original setting for UCSB. Improbably, the Riviera is the one Santa Barbara screen showing independent and foreign movies. The theater still features a heavy beamed mission-style ceiling and amber wall sconces embellished with a gothic ‘R’. Across the street is the newly re-modeled luxury resort El Encanto which utilizes some of the old buildings from the original dormitories for the Normal School.
Turner painted atmospheres of sufficient viscosity to function as dream catchers - he created external matrices tuned to capture inner thoughts or visions that might otherwise never escape the unconscious. His subject matter - from the horror of a burning slave ship to the pathos of an old Napoleonic era ship of the line being towed up the Thames by steam tug or the technological marvels of the day, like steam trains - was enveloped in texture, color and impressionist mood sufficient to stir inchoate emotions from deep within the viewer. He elaborated the captured moment in ways that produce a gestalt of meaning that transcend the prosaic realities of the original scene.
Leigh shows us canvases (prepared by Turner's housekeeper with benefits) painted, smeared, scratched, and smudged so that they reflect those fleeting moments of visual revelation initially caught in the artist's sketch books. The filmmaker's graceful camera and economical script bring Turner, his domestic life and loves, his rancorous dealings with patrons and the stultifying Royal Academy, his professional jealousies and above all, his fascination with the world of the Thames estuary, so fully to life that our own relationship to place, light and our lived lives is ushered into that delirious zone where the quotidien is ennobled both by a soulful beauty and tenebrous meaning.
This morning, before dawn, a half moon hung overhead giving sufficient light for me to move confidently along the trail; wind buffeted the sage and stirred the scents of the chaparral; no birdsong yet, but the tympanic breath of the warm air filled the aural void. Random fronds of chamise whipped in the breeze and brushed against my body: my senses thus engaged, they resonated somewhere deep within me.
The painter’s contemporary, Wordsworth, practiced a similar recollection of fleeting events in tranquility and then a transposition into enduring verse. Both artists were assiduous in broaching the concerns of the day while expanding the consciousness of their audience with bravura renditions of purely visual, often natural, phenomena. It has not entirely escaped my notice that I practice a journeyman version of this device of sugar-coating the pill. The compulsion to concretize the evanescent too, is an enduring artistic compulsion - as is the use of beauty to cloak intellectual constructs and critiques: they are at the heart of the artistic endeavor. But the Romantics, and Turner is surely one such, were also engaged in the practice of drawing back the veil: of revealing the sublime beyond the everyday surfaces of the world.
At first light, the sky is almost fully illuminated and the sun's impending appearance is heralded by a yellow wash leaking around the back lit silhouette of the Santa Paula ridge. An ocean of fog creeps slowly up the Santa Clara river delta bounded by the headlands of South Mountain and Point Mugu. Here was a Turneresque background in the chaparral: but the master was more than a painter of seascapes, landscapes and atmosphere: he imbued his scenes with social, historical and economic significance. Turner would require a foreground, at the edge of the waves of fog, and extending picture plane left. A native scene - a collection of thatched, beehive shaped huts clustered along the Santa Clara River valley, blue tendrils beginning to coil out of the hut's smoke holes and about them, the first flurry of the mornings activities animating the plain - would have served. His was an imagination, typical of the nineteenth century intellect, that slipped easily into past worlds.
Turner's, proto-impressionist paintings shot his viewers half a century or more into the future enabling them to see the world with something that approached a modern sensibility. He attached emotion to the everyday and wonder to the extraordinary. Karl Ove Knausgaard, that voice of the moment who has elevated the neuroses of the Scandinavian schlub to an art form, writes in My Saga (2015),
"The external has to awaken something within; nothing means anything in itself, it is the resonance it produces, in the soul and in the language, that gives meaning to the thing described."
In the chaparral this week, the externalities stirring my soul are the triple cream blossoms of the native clematis, holly leafed cherry, and elderberry. They have no need of artistic mediation - they speak directly to me. Here in the wildland, the veil may be drawn back, transcending the picture plane, abrogating the word and eschewing the moving image. The prickly, scented, untidy and random profligacy of the dull green fuzz that clings to the earth's crust in Southern California - still, in places, in its primal state - can fully reveal the soulful adumbrations so hard won by the Romantics and now, by the logorrheic Knausgaard. It offers transport to the Universe's infinitude where the romantic spirit may collapse into a vertiginous gyre of the sublime.