Tugged to Our Last Birth

J.M.W. Turner’s “The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to be Broken Up” (1838) depicts an old warship from the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) being towed to east London for scrap, an homage to Britain’s naval victory against the Spanish and French during the Napoleonic wars.

The glorious and dramatic light was common in Turner’s mid-career, of which said painting is indicative. His later work, my favorite, are monochromatic thin washes of paint which act as veils of light through which the viewer sees vague subjectless seascapes. At the end of one’s life, there is often nothing, and everything. Perhaps those two things are the same.

The BP oil spill, formally known as the “Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill,” (2010) released an estimated 4.9 million barrels (est. 53,000 per day) of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico in the course of three months. BP is a global company headquartered in London; its American division, in Houston, Texas, is the biggest producer of oil and gas in the United States.

Turner’s aesthetic anomalies and unconventional techniques (in the context of 19th century English romantic landscape painting) were afforded by financial independence from his family. Great artists are either extremely rich or poor; the middle-class — the endangered group in which this contributor resides — has no business meddling in history.

The British Coalition eventually won, but only after France’s ill-fated 1812 invasion of Russia. Empires fall and new ones take their place. The moat around the United States, as we approach economic- and/or otherwise-demise, is rimmed with oil and guarded by an army of obese patriots. Drill, baby, drill! the 2008 Republican campaign slogan goes, unabashedly alluding to their illicit/implicit relations with oil companies.

Aerial pictures of the BP oil spill, showing thick slow-wavering malleable layers of oil at the surface of the water, remind me of Andres Serrano’s “Blood and Semen” series in which said fluids are mixed together and photographed up close on a scientific slide. The juxtaposition is jarring, but strangely associative with human progression’s inextricable ties with war and procreation.

The sun, we learn in grade school science, is a flaming ball; a small meaningless one in some obscure ever expanding corner of the universe. That it rises — or, more accurately, that our earth’s arc encroaches towards it — every morning is perhaps enough for us. The British eventually won, unlike their recent (at the time) history with the United States. Now we, two hundred plus years later, aflame in a self-made Black Sea, hold fort down tightly with paranoia as the Middle-east and East squirm around us, or we around them. There is no more West to go.

A satirical cartoon shows J.M.W Turner painting with a mop and a bucket of yellow paint. He didn’t really respond, just kept on painting the mute man’s game — though he did utter on his deathbed “The sun is God,” so when you wake up tomorrow ad infin until that fateful fin, do say hello. Just don’t look directly at it. Love may be blind, and so are men, but God is blinding. TC mark

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  • dave

    This comparison is crazy

    • http://jimmychenchen.com/ Jimmy Chen

      I admit it's an odd pair, and I'm not making any “claim” — only an oblique commentary or even meandering of ideas. The effort to link two disparate things is of interest to me now, but I do appreciate the thought.

  • chris r

    This oil spill is a fucking travesty. People think they understand that, but if you don't live in the state it's really kind of hard to understand. This state is run by democrats, but democrats that are pro-oil, which is kind of unique. The democrats that run this state aren't like any other democrats that run any other state. These are democrats that do not give two shits about our environment. This state is full of poor people who vote democrat for it's social programs, but who depend on “Big Oil” based jobs, because outside of oil jobs, we are basically dependent on tourism for money, which has dropped since Katrina, so people who want a chance at holding office, have to appeal to the lower class seeking public assistance AND the people working oil based jobs, both of which are the lower/lower middle class. It creates a really odd sort of paradox.

  • Madison Moore

    I LOVE THIS I LOVE IT

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