Racism, anti-racism in Canada

This video says about itself:

20 May 2016

Broadcasting from Toronto, Canada, we look at how Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally apologized this week for the 1914 Komagata Maru incident in which Canada turned away a Japanese steamship in order to prevent more than 370 Indians, including Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus, from immigrating to the country. The move was widely acknowledged to be aimed at keeping Indians out of Canada.

Then premier of British Columbia, Sir Richard McBride, said at the time, “And we always have in mind the necessity of keeping this a white man’s country.” We feature excerpts from the award-winning documentary on the Komagata Maru incident, “Continuous Journey,” and speak with its director, Ali Kazimi, who is also author of the book, “Undesirables: White Canada and the Komagata Maru.” Kazimi also discusses Canada’s current practice of detaining asylum seekers after a string of deaths inside detention centers.

This video from Canada says about itself:

Part 1: Canada’s Indigenous & Black Lives Matter Activists Unite to Protest Violence & Neglect

20 May 2016

We host a roundtable discussion in Toronto about how indigenous and Black Lives Matter activists in Canada are working together to address state violence and neglect, and media coverage of their efforts. Last month, First Nations people occupied the offices of Canada’s indigenous affairs department to demand action over suicides as well as water and housing crises in their communities.

The protests came after the Cree community of Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency over attempted suicides. Protesters set up occupations inside and outside the offices of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada in Toronto, Regina, Winnipeg and Gatineau, Quebec. Among those who took part in the occupation of the office here in Toronto were local Black Lives Matter activists who just weeks earlier had launched a 15-day encampment outside police headquarters following news there would be no criminal charges for the police officer who fatally shot a South Sudanese refugee named Andrew Loku last July. Among those who turned out in force at the encampment outside Toronto police headquarters were First Nations activists.

We are joined by Erica Violet Lee, an indigenous rights activist with the Idle No More movement and a student at the University of Saskatchewan; Hayden King, an indigenous writer and lecturer at Carleton University’s School of Public Policy in Ottawa; LeRoi Newbold, a member of the steering committee for Black Lives Matter Toronto and director of the Black Lives Matter Toronto Freedom School Project; and Desmond Cole, a journalist and columnist for the Toronto Star and radio host on Newstalk 1010.

This video is the sequel.

Canadian dating site helping United States refugees from Trump presidency

This video from the USA says about itself:

Dating Site Offers New Way To Escape Trump Presidency

12 May 2016

Are you worried about a Trump presidency? Do you wish that you could move to Canada? Well a new dating site might have the solution for you. Cenk Uygur and Ana Kasparian, hosts of The Young Turks, break it down. Tell us what you think in the comment section below.

“For single Americans terrified by the prospect of President Trump, a new dating site called “Maple Match” offers one way out: date a Canadian.

“Maple Match makes it easy for Americans to find the ideal Canadian partner to save them from the unfathomable horror of a Trump presidency,” the site’s homepage romantically proclaims.

Though marrying a Canadian does not automatically grant Canadian citizenship, the promise of finding love in a country where Donald Trump will never be president has already lured in 35,000 hits—and the site isn’t even active yet.”

Read more here.

Canadian ruling elite divided over prospect of Trump presidency: here.

Native Canadians’ history, new research

This video says about itself:

17 December 2015

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has officially recognized Canada’s historical abuses toward aboriginals, and he is now calling on the Pope to apologize too.

By Janet Browning:

Canadian capitalism and the subjugation and decimation of the indigenous population

23 April 2016

Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life by James Daschuk

James Daschuk, an academic at the University of Regina, has produced a study on the health of Canada’s indigenous people up to and including the nineteenth century. Clearing the Plains provides a devastating indictment of Canadian capitalism’s subjugation and decimation of the Native Indian (First Nations) population on the country’s western plains—the modern-day Prairie provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.

Daschuk’s study, which is based on extensive archival research, is aimed at identifying the roots of the stark health disparity between the current-day indigenous and non-indigenous populations of western Canada. At the beginning of Clearing the Plains, Daschuk notes that on average, indigenous Canadians can expect to die between five and eight years earlier than other Canadians. He sets out to confirm that the deliberate economic and cultural marginalization of indigenous people by the Canadian capitalist state is the primary factor impeding improved health outcomes for First Nations people.

The book divides the history of indigenous people’s health into two periods:

1. Before 1869, when the spread of “virgin soil epidemics,” such as tuberculosis, smallpox, whooping cough and scarlet fever, constituted a tragic, unforeseen, but largely organic, change driven by the expansion of trade and increased contact with Europeans; and

2. After December 1869, when, with the purchase of the “Hudson Bay lands” by the recently established Dominion of Canada, the Canadian bourgeoisie and its state mounted a concerted drive to impose capitalist relations based on private property on Canada’s Great Plains. This led to a systematic policy of marginalizing the indigenous population and forcing them off their land, through violence, chicanery, and the deliberate withholding of food—that is, starvation.

Daschuk’s research reveals that in the first period of colonization, indigenous people on the Plains generally enjoyed good health. Indeed, they were observed to be larger than Europeans at the time of initial contact. This was no doubt due to their high protein diet, which was mainly based on the consumption of bison.

European explorers and traders brought smallpox and measles. These and other infectious diseases had a devastating impact because the Native population had no previous exposure to them, hence the term “virgin soil diseases.” As trade spread across the continent, indigenous communities were ravaged by disease, badly disrupting their patterns of life, resulting in food shortages, weakened immune systems, and still greater depopulation.

Daschuk spends the first five chapters of his work dealing with the historical period from the early seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries, including the fur wars that commenced in the 1780s, and the subsequent period of the Hudson Bay Company’s monopoly over modern-day Western Canada. The remaining four chapters, upon which this review will concentrate, deal with the period following the 1867 merger of the largest British North American colonies into the Dominion of Canada.

The decline of the fur trade and the relentless expansion of capitalism in the St. Lawrence Valley-Great Lakes region buoyed by Britain’s need for foodstuffs, wood and other resources products and by the transfer of impoverished crofters (tenant-farmers) and artisans from Europe to the “New World” pushed colonial settlement and land appropriation ever deeper into the hunting grounds of the indigenous peoples. As in Australasia, the subjugation and dispossession of the Native peoples of North America arose out of the objective logic of capitalist expansion and the incompatibility of capitalist private property and the exploitation of wage-labour with communal forms of property and social organization.

These objective forces found expression in the political leadership of the new Dominion. Daschuk’s research shows that Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister and the principal architect of the union of the British North American colonies, headed a regime engaged in a colonizing process, whose logic led to the driving of the Plains Indians from their ancestral lands and their near extermination. In the quarter century following Canada’s purchase of “legal title” over the Hudson Bay lands, the Canadian state forcibly subjugated and dispossessed the indigenous population of the Plains so that the Canada Pacific Railway could be built, with the threefold purpose of consolidating the Canadian bourgeoisie’s control over the northern tier of North America, opening the Canadian Prairies to commercial agriculture, and providing a market thereby for manufacturers in eastern Canada.

While it is difficult to determine the exact number of Native people who died during this period as the result of Canadian authorities’ acts of commission and omission, Daschuk provides several figures that give a sense of the scale of the catastrophe. In 1876, a government official estimated the total indigenous population on the western plains at 26,000. By 1891, it had fallen to 15,000, including a decline of one third during a six-year period beginning in the mid-1880s.

The Treaties and state-sponsored famine

By the mid-1870s, the bison population, upon which Plains Indians had relied for centuries for food and clothing, was in steep decline, and many of the hereditary chiefs had acknowledged that their people would have to shift from a semi-nomadic life as hunter-gatherers to one based on agriculture. Consequently, they petitioned Ottawa for treaties through which they hoped to gain assistance from the Canadian government in transitioning to agriculture. Eager for economic development and fearing armed conflict, Dominion officials saw the treaty process as a good means to strengthen the state, marginalize the Native population, and get unfettered control over prime tracts of land.

Daschuk notes that most of the Cree who attended the Treaty 6 talks at Fort Carlton in the late summer of 1876 recognized the futility of armed resistance to Dominion authority. The Cree successfully negotiated three innovations in Treaty 6: extra assistance in their conversion to agriculture, relief in the event of famine or pestilence, and a “medicine chest.” The latter provision involved a promise to maintain a chest of basic medical supplies for Native people’s use at the house of the local representative of the Department of Indian Affairs.

Within a year of the signing of Treaty 6, a large-scale famine occurred, which Daschuk characterizes as a “Testament to Dominion indifference.”

In 1877, Treaty 7 was hurriedly negotiated to defuse an increasingly tense situation in Southern Alberta caused by armed conflict just south of the US border. Within two years, the bison were gone, and the indigenous people were resettled onto small, remote reservations that they were forbidden to leave, even to work on private farms as labourers.

At this point, explains Daschuk, Macdonald, seeing his advantage, deliberately withheld food from the hungry and completely dependent population so as to enforce subservience to the Canadian state and compliance with the new capitalist order. If recalcitrant Indians died in the process, so much the better.

As Daschuk observes, “while the Indians were starving, in many cases to death, the authorities withheld food that was available. The famine on the plains was more than the simple Malthusian equation of too many people and too few bison.”

This policy was even more criminal given that, according to Daschuk’s research, Ottawa had been well aware of the impending food crisis. As early as 1874-1875, an internal document predicted the disappearance of the bison within a decade. In May 1878, the lieutenant governor of the Dominion’s territorial government warned the minister of the interior, David Mills, that the government would have to choose one of three options: “help the Indians to farm and raise stock, feed them, or fight them.”

The famine resulted in the sexual exploitation of Native women and children by federal Indian Agents, who exchanged food for sex; created over-crowded living conditions, which resulted in a tuberculosis epidemic in indigenous communities; and led to the death by starvation of many Native people.

“Suffering at Battleford, Saskatchewan, was so pervasive,” writes Daschuk, “that it had become banal. Under the heading ‘Lost and Found’ the Saskatchewan Herald ran the following item on 16 December 1878: ‘Found Where the Indians starved to death, about the 1st of October, a white mare. The owner can have the same by proving property and paying expenses’.”

Daschuk goes on to report, “Even the unsympathetic editor of the Saskatchewan Herald, P.G. Laurier, was moved by the plight of the hungry: ‘the condition of these Indians is deplorable in the extreme. Accustomed all their lives to a diet consisting largely of animal food, the rations of flour and tea they receive here leave them but one remove from starvation.” Laurier reported that Dickieson, the acting Indian superintendent in Battleford, had “to ‘deal single-handed with a thousand starving Indians,’ with no meat or any means of requisitioning it from his superiors.”

At Edmonton, writes Daschuk, “Indian Agent James Stewart reported on the crisis: ‘…I have never seen anything like it since my long residence in this country. It was not only the want of buffalo, but everything else seemed to have deserted the country; even fish were scarce. …. (T)he poor people were naked, and the cold was intense, and remained so during the whole winter; under these circumstances they behaved well, and no raids were made on anything here. They ate many of their horses, and all the dogs were destroyed for food…’.”

Reports from other areas show how the distribution of meagre rations was used by government officials as a weapon, with dreadful consequences. A measure of the disastrous results of the government’s actions is the fact that the few First Nations that had not yet entered into a treaty-relationship with the Canadian state enjoyed better health. As Daschuk notes, “Communities that entered into treaties assumed that the Canadian State would protect them from famine and socioeconomic catastrophe, yet in less than a decade, the ‘protections’ afforded by treaties became the means by which the State subjugated the Treaty Indian population. One measure of the Dominion’s oppression of the indigenous population of the prairies was the explosion of tuberculosis. The Dakota, however, did not succumb to the epidemic in the early 1880s because they were relatively free from the oppressive management of the Department of Indian Affairs and could participate in the commercial economy of the region; in other words, they were free from treaty.”

On top of implementing the federal government’s brutal policies, officials were often corruptly trying to advance their own personal interests. Daschuk cites the case of Edward Dewdney, who served as the lieutenant-governor of the North-West Territories during most of the 1880s. Dewdney had close ties to the Montana-based grain firm I.G. Baker, from which the Canadian government purchased flour to supply the reserves. Daschuk reports, “On 6 November 1883, Dr. F. X. Girard, the Medical Officer for Treaty 7, reported that flour supplied by the (Montana) company was ‘unfit for food’ and had been responsible for many deaths. In 1883 W.W. Gibson, a settler whose land was adjacent to the Piapot Reserve in Saskatchewan, stated that 130 people had died after being given rancid bacon for their work. The chief, Long Lodge, complained to the Superintendent of Indian Affairs that his people could not eat the bacon, supplied by the I. G. Baker company, to which Dewdney replied, ‘The Indians should eat the bacon or die, and be damned to them’.”

According to a federal Liberal MP, Dewdney’s firm stance on the bacon was because “his friend the contractor, who happened to be in a land syndicate with him, had 90,000 pounds of rotting bacon to dispose of.” Another Liberal MP claimed the Cree who had been confined to the Piapot Reserve were fed rotting meat “bought in Chicago for 1 ½ cents per pound and sold to this government for 19 cents,” and that a share of the profits went to the lieutenant-governor. “Predictably,” Daschuk writes, “the Prime Minister dismissed charges that there was a connection between Dewdney, the consumption of spoiled bacon, and the sudden spike in deaths on the Indian Head reserves.”

The role of the Macdonald Conservative government

Daschuk’s study is principally concerned with the health of Native people, devoting less attention to the discussions taking place within the political establishment at the time. Nonetheless, his account does demonstrate that the political elite, and the Conservatives under Macdonald in particular, saw the indigenous population as a barrier to capitalist expansion in the west. “Macdonald’s plan to starve uncooperative Indians onto reserves and into submission might have been cruel,” says Daschuk, “but it certainly was effective.”

With the return to power of a Macdonald-led Conservative government in 1878 after a five-year Liberal interregnum, there was, explains Daschuk, a new approach to Indian policy. This new approach was bound up with the implementation of the Conservatives’ National Policy, which had as one of its central goals the “opening” of the Prairies to large-scale settlement and capitalist exploitation. “Management of the increasingly serious food situation and Indian affairs generally shifted from a position of ‘relative ignorance’ under the Liberals to one of outright malevolence during the Macdonald regime.” To ensure that the Indians were “pacified” and the western plains ready for the Canadian Pacific Railway and settlement, Macdonald personally took charge, naming himself Superintendent General of Indian Affairs.

Although Daschuk’s research demonstrates that the Canadian state combined the deliberate use of famine as a political weapon with callous criminal indifference, making it directly responsible for a catastrophic drop in the Native population, he refrains from indicting the Canadian state for genocide.

“This study,” he writes, “has shown that the decline of First Nations’ health was the direct result of economic and cultural suppression. The effects of the state-sponsored attack on indigenous communities that began in the 1880s haunt us as a nation still.” He continues, “Identification of the forces that have held indigenous communities back might provide valuable insights into what is required to bridge the gap between First Nations’ communities and the rest of Canada today.”

This amounts to little more than a vague hope. As Daschuk himself notes, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, Third World-type conditions continue to prevail on most reserves. Moreover, the conditions of First Nations people who have migrated to the cities are little better. As in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, the vast majority of Canada’s Native people confront desperate poverty, food insecurity and hunger, inadequate fresh water supplies, high rates of unemployment, and an increased likelihood of falling victim to violent crime.

Canadian capitalism and its state were consolidated through the dispossession and subjugation of the Native people, the seizure of their lands, the destruction of their communal property relations, and, under the “treaty-system,” the shunting of the Native people onto reserves that were denied basic resources and subject to all manner of intrusive state control. This process, as Daschuk graphically illustrates, even if he himself shies away from using the term, involved a genocidal policy toward the Plains Indians.

In the twentieth century, the Canadian state connived with the mining, oil, lumber, and hydro companies to further dispossess the Native population, while sponsoring a system of state-sponsored church-run “residential schools” that systematically abused and humiliated Native children. Last year, the government-established Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) felt compelled to designate the residential school policy a “cultural genocide.”

The oppression of the Native people down to this day has been inextricably bound up with the emergence and expansion of Canadian capitalism. It will only be ended through a movement uniting the working class—Native and non-Native—in struggle against the capitalist social order.

By producing a well-researched book that sheds light on the brutal means by which the Canadian bourgeoisie consolidated its state and the enduring legacy of this crime, Daschuk has contributed to a fuller understanding of an important historical period that remains largely unknown. Clearing the Plains deserves a wide audience.

The author also recommends:

Canada’s aboriginal Truth and Reconciliation Report—the class issues
[13 June 2015]

What is at stake in Australia’s “History Wars”
[14 July 2004]

Giant bird Gastornis in Arctic, 53 million years ago

This video says about itself:

This is a World were Birds Eat Horses- (C) Walking with Beasts

The first episode depicts the warm tropical world of the early Eocene which was 16 million years after the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs. Birds, including the giant carnivorous Gastornis, rule this world, while mammals are still very small. The setting is near the Messel pit in Germany. Due to volcanic activity, sudden bulk escapes of carbon dioxide trapped underneath lakes are a hazard. The episode centers around a Leptictidium family foraging for food. The Leptictidium is a small leaping shrew-like mammal. While the family is foraging, a female Gastornis who has been taking care of the single egg in her nest successfully hunts down a Propalaeotherium who has been slowed down by eating fermenting grapes.

Walking with Beasts thought Gastornis was carnivorous; contrary to later theories.

From Wildlife Extra:

Flightless giant bird roamed the Arctic 53m years ago

A giant, flightless bird with a head the size of a horse’s roamed the Arctic 53m years ago when the icy wilderness was more like a swamp, scientists have confirmed.

A joint study by American and Chinese institutions found that the massive beast, known as Gastornis, existed on what is now known as Ellesmere island, found above the Arctic circle. It’s estimated the bird was 6ft tall and weighed several hundred pounds.

The evidence for Gastornis’s presence in the Arctic comes from a single fossil toe bone, found by researchers in the 1970s. Scientists have now finally confirmed that the bone matches that of a fossilized Gastornis of similar age found in Wyoming.

“I couldn’t tell the Wyoming specimens from the Ellesmere specimen, even though it was found roughly 4,000km (2,500 miles) to the north,” said Prof Thomas Stidham of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. Stidham and his colleague Jaelyn Eberle, of the University of Colorado Boulder, matched the bones through techniques such as studying where muscle attachments lay. The research has been published in Scientific Reports.

The research raises some interesting questions over the behavior of Gastornis. The giant bird may have migrated south during winters in the Arctic, where darkness envelops the region for months at a time. The species was originally thought to be a formidable carnivore but recent research suggests that Gastornis was probably a vegan, using its huge beak to munch through leaves, nuts, seeds and fruit.

Eberle said bird fossils found in the Arctic are “extremely rare” and that the researchers aren’t sure whether Gastornis lived in the area year round.

“There are some sea ducks today that spend the winter in the cold, freezing Arctic, and we see many more species of waterfowl that are only in the Arctic during the relatively warmer spring and summer months,” she said.

Canada’s Ellesmere island is the 10th largest island in the world and lies adjacent to Greenland. Riven with fjords and attached to vast aprons of ice, Ellesmere is one of the coldest, driest and most remote places on Earth. Temperatures can reach -40C (-40F) in winter.

It was a very different place 53m years ago, however, during the Eocene epoch. During this time, Antarctica was still attached to Australia and global temperatures were unusually warm, which meant the world was mostly ice-free. Ellesmere island would have been covered in the sort of cypress swamps now found much farther south in the US, with evidence that the area hosted turtles, alligators, primates and even large hippo-like and rhino-like mammals.

While apes and alligators won’t be returning to Ellesmere any time soon, the researchers said that the discovery of Gastornis provided a better understanding of the consequences of a changed climate.

“Permanent Arctic ice, which has been around for millennia, is on track to disappear,” Eberle said.

“I’m not suggesting there will be a return of alligators and giant tortoises to Ellesmere island any time soon. But what we know about past warm intervals in the Arctic can give us a much better idea about what to expect in terms of changing plant and animal populations there in the future.”

Canada will stop bombing Syria and Iraq

This video says about itself:

21 April 2013

This video shows Syrians, Lebanese, Canadians, and others in the Canadian capital of Ottawa demonstrating and asking the [then Stephen Harper] Canadian government to stop supporting al-Qaeda in Syria.

Translated from NOS TV in the Netherlands:

Canada will stop airstrikes on ISIS in two weeks’ time

Today, 18:47

Canada will not participate in the air strikes on targets of IS in Syria and Iraq from February 22 on . In this way, Prime Minister Trudeau keeps his election promise of last year.

Since April 2015, when the country was still ruled by the Conservative Harper government, six Canadian warplanes have been participating in the bombing raids of the international coalition against ISIS.

The Canadian decision is opposed by the US government and the rest of the coalition.

Training mission

Two Canadian reconnaissance aircraft and a tanker aircraft will remain stationed in the area. Furthermore Trudeau will send another 130 troops to northern Iraq to train Kurdish militias. There are already 70 Canadian trainers in that region.

According to the Liberal prime minister, the region is more helped by strengthening its own military force then by military intervention from outside. He said this was the lesson that Canada had drawn after being active for ten years in Afghanistan.

The people who are terrorized by ISIS are not served by our revenge but by our support,” Trudeau declared to the Canadian press. The mission in Afghanistan has cost the lives of 158 Canadian soldiers.

Many media outlets have responded to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s plan to expand Canada’s role in the US-led Mideast war with scathing criticism, taking the three-month-old Liberal government to task for the supposed inadequacy of Canada’s military engagement in the region and internationally: here.

Two attacks on a US firebase in northern Iraq, which killed one US Marine and wounded several more, have led to revelations about a substantial escalation of the US military intervention in the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS): here.

Black-legged kittiwakes bathing, video

This video from Canada says about itself:

27 January 2016

Black-legged Kittiwakes swim and bathe in Newfoundland. Most of the birds here are breeding adults, but look for younger birds with darker bills and markings. These birds breed along the northern shores of North America. They feed in flocks, snatching food from the surface of the water, or just underneath, which they pursue with shallow dives.

J.M.W. Turner art exhibition in Canada

This video from England says about itself:

7 October 2014

Tate Britain

The EY Exhibition: Late Turner – Painting Set Free is the first exhibition devoted to the extraordinary work J.M.W. Turner created between 1835 and his death in 1851. Bringing together spectacular works from the UK and abroad, this exhibition celebrates Turner’s astonishing creative flowering in these later years when he produced many of his finest pictures but was also controversial and unjustly misunderstood.

Highlights of the exhibition include such important pictures as Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus and Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino, rarely reunited since first exhibited together in 1839; The Wreck Buoy 1849; and magnificent watercolours like Heidelberg: Sunset c.1840 and the seldom-seen Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland c.1837.

By Lee Parsons in Canada:

Comments on an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario

26 January 2016

J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free, at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto—October 31, 2015–January 31, 2016

One senses a growing hunger for something recognizably human (and humane) in the surging popularity of representational imagery in art these days. So, as well as being a profound aesthetic experience in itself, the exhibition of the late work of J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851) at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto is of particular interest. In this work one can discern the fundamental elements of what were extraordinary achievements of the imagination in their time, which may also speak to the present impasse in contemporary art.

The AGO is the final stop for this touring exhibition that began in 2014 at the Tate Britain, home to over 30,000 works by Turner bequeathed by the artist to its predecessor, the National Gallery. One is left slack-jawed in the face of his prolific efforts. With supporting material from other artists, as well as artifacts (which it has to be said add little to the experience and in some ways detract from it), the show includes over 50 paintings and drawings by Turner from the Tate Britain, as well as four pieces from the permanent collection of the AGO.

Peace–Burial at Sea (1842)

Certainly, other artists working at this time made important and unusual contributions, but Turner’s late artwork in particular represents a defining moment in the formation of sensibilities and conceptions that underlie the breakthroughs of modern art. Though the paintings were controversial in their day, this exhibition brings together some of the most beautiful and disturbing work done by this artistic genius: the painting that Turner did in the last 15 years of his life when his work most boldly broke from literal depiction, legitimizing more spontaneous and even abstract expression in art.

Hailed as the greatest landscape painter of the age, Turner is also arguably the greatest watercolourist of all time. It nevertheless took nearly a century of subsequent developments before this work was properly understood in terms of its role in art history, anticipating and—to a certain extent—even overstepping the great strides of the impressionists who followed after him.

In the watercolour on paper, “The Blue Rigi, Sunrise” (1842), for example, a delicately hazy, almost formless landscape, Turner’s ethereal brushwork conveys the poignancy of its title in a style that is possibly a generation ahead of its time.

The Blue Rigi, Sunrise (1842)

His earlier work is closely associated with Romanticism in art, with its emphasis on emotional expression and aesthetic appreciation. But Turner expanded and developed on this in these later years as he discovered astonishing new ways of communicating emotion and meaning in painting—hence the title of the exhibition, “Painting set Free.”

Reproduction never conveys the full richness of a painting or drawing, but this is especially true in the case of Turner’s work because of the sensual, tactile relationship he developed with his media and his canvas, the precision and grace of which can only be fully appreciated by direct viewing. In addition to experimenting with new materials, he was known to use a variety of tools in his application of paint, at times even his fingers and fingernails.

In a work such as “Fire at the Grand Storehouse of the Tower of London” (1841), one sees the subtle depth of tones, the fine lines, the mysterious layering of light that he achieves, and one comes to understand why his peers considered him something of a magician.

Fire at the Grand Storehouse of the Tower of London (1841)

His innovation did come at some cost, and many of the paintings shown are badly cracked, the colors faded or damaged in other ways. This premature deterioration is due to a variety of factors—Turner’s use of new, commercially available media for oil painting, his experimentation with new pigments. But it is also the result of the tensions created by inventive yet flawed techniques in his layering of paint—for example, the mixing and layering of water color over oil.

Converging currents

Turner was a deeply contradictory figure, and in a number of ways. Preoccupied with his reputation and status, he avidly sought official recognition and support, yet ignored the criticism and derision that he was eventually subjected to. Artistically, he saw himself as a guardian of established traditions in landscape painting, but at the same time he was among the most inventive and unorthodox artists in history, pushing the limits of his materials and what was considered the proper subject matter in his day.

Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory) (1843)

Staunchly conservative and yet truly independent and revolutionary, Turner was a living, breathing embodiment of the tensions of the age, of the struggle between the vestigial hold of the land-owning aristocracy and its cultural traditions, and powerful new social forces, including humble, plebeian ones.

Turner’s life spanned the tumultuous years between the American Revolution and the Revolutions of 1848, and encompassed the great French Revolution of 1789, the industrial revolution, the Napoleonic Wars and more—these were the convulsions that shaped his generation and informed artistic development in Britain and across Europe. This was the period that saw the social and political transformation of Europe and North America, ushering in the bourgeois order—ushering in, in effect, the modern age.

Joseph Mallord William Turner grew up essentially as an only child—his younger sister died at the age of four. His father, from Devon, became a barber and wigmaker in London and his mother came from a propertied family of London butchers. His father’s shop, situated near the city’s theatre district on Maiden Lane, afforded the young Turner contact with a variety of patrons, including writers, artisans and artists, as well as influential figures in the art world, many of whom proved to be of great benefit later in building his career.

The Angel Standing in the Sun (1846)

This clientele provided the young artist, as an adolescent, a steady market for his drawings and watercolours, which his father proudly displayed in his shop, allowing the boy to earn both his own money and public notice from an early age.

Drawing and painting were considered essential to a proper, all-rounded education at the time because such skills were in great demand in various commercial enterprises. Young Turner quickly figured out he had marketable talent and even greater potential, and sought to position himself for financial success. He apprenticed with a noted architect where he learned architectural and perspective drawing, the mastery of which can be seen in even his earliest work.

He began a relationship early in life with the recently founded Royal Academy of Arts (RA), an association that was to last until his death. Enrolling at the age of 14 (the momentous year of 1789!), Turner was immediately recognized as a major talent and, remarkably, his work was accepted for exhibiting the following year. Becoming an associate at the young age of 24, the painter maintained a strong relationship with the Academy, entering his artwork in their annual exhibitions, teaching, lecturing and otherwise supporting the institution throughout his life, long after it had become a bastion of conservatism.

The Departure of the Fleet (1850)

Turner carefully guarded his personal life, but it is generally agreed that he had significant romantic liaisons with at least two women. Sarah Danby gave him two daughters with whom he had little apparent contact. Later on, and to the end of his life, he maintained a secret relationship with Sophia Booth, a widow whom he boarded with in her house on the Thames River. Also kept secret was the declining mental state of his mother, who spent her final years shut away in an asylum, abandoned and ignored by her son. Here is a man who apparently exhibited considerable callousness in his most personal relationships, but who expressed the most profound humanity and compassion in his work—the contrast, while hardly unique, is still jarring.

His father was a lifelong advocate and supporter, working after a certain point exclusively as his assistant and valet right until the end of his life. In his later years, Turner considered himself something of an invalid and indeed suffered from an array of ailments, losing his teeth and also his eyesight towards the end, leading critics to dismiss these later paintings as the work of a blind man, or alternatively, a lunatic.

Many of the relationships with friends and collaborators Turner had maintained throughout his life began to fall away, but this period also brought him his most ardent champion in the person of the noted young art critic and historian John Ruskin. About the latter Turner once declared, “[He] sees more in my pictures than I ever painted.” Though Ruskin’s interpretation was at the time controversial, he later won great respect for his six-volume work, Modern Painters. The first volume was published in 1843 and was dedicated explicitly to the defense of the last period of work by J.M.W. Turner, a service for which the artist was most grateful.

A view forward

The Royal Academy of Arts in London was established in 1768, following the examples of France and Holland, enforcing strict guidelines over subject matter and style in art. It cast off the extravagance of the Baroque period and imposed the classical tradition. Artists who worked beyond these boundaries had great difficulty gaining public recognition and yet this was the institution with which Turner, the most experimental artist of his time, staunchly allied himself.

There is no genuine equivalent in the contemporary world to the social position artists held in the early 19th century, but the fame and prestige Turner enjoyed might be compared to that of a film star today. Throughout his career he was at the top of the heap. His relationships and transactions with the aristocracy and political establishment brought him great wealth and ranked him in the cultural elite, a position he both sought and enjoyed. Politically, Turner was a republican and a British patriot, although he was never very vocal about his views.

The themes and subject matter in his paintings drew on classical mythology, historical parallels to the ancient world and contemporary political events (and particularly the progress of the Napoleonic Wars), as well as the colonial expansion of the British Empire. Ultimately, Turner departed markedly from the traditions of landscape painters such as the French artist Claude Lorrain (c. 1600–1682), whom he openly revered. There are striking contrasts in Turner’s landscape work in these later years, which place him clearly on the leading edge of advances in artistic form and content, as he responded—perhaps in spite of himself—to the pervasive and explosive social transformations taking place around him.

Regulus (1828, 1837)

In addition to the various land and seascapes that he was known for early in his career, in this period of rapid innovation, Turner was both fascinated and suspicious of groundbreaking inventions such as photogravure—which seemed to threaten the very need for artists—and also the steam railway, which broke down barriers of time and space. He was also electrified by such historic achievements as human flight, realized with the advent of hot-air balloons. His enthusiasm for such astonishing advances is conveyed in his own artistic striving against all forms of physical, earth-bound restraint.

One of Turner’s most extraordinary depictions of steam locomotives is “Rain, Steam and Speed—The Great Western Railway” (1844). Here he develops imagery that is highly evocative and, in its technical exploration and lack of pictorial detail, pushes beyond even the later work of the impressionists.

Another striking work, and a favourite of Ruskin’s, is the subtle but brilliant oil painting, “The Sun of Venice Going to Sea” (1843). Centre frame, a Venetian fishing boat with painted sails unfurled approaches the viewer. The subject, perhaps from a previous era, is seemingly outside time, floating on an ethereal sea, the faint outline of Venice on the horizon, drawn in tones of green, brown and yellow, with an inspired stroke of color in the sky above. This extraordinary work has been interpreted as a reflection by the aging artist on his own mortality, which seems probable. Alternatively, it has been taken to refer to the decline of the Venetian Empire with ominous implications for the British.

The Sun of Venice Going to Sea (1843)

Turner made efforts to write throughout his life, particularly poetry, and he even occasionally lectured, but he never articulated (or perhaps never dared articulate) what were clearly deeply held democratic and humane beliefs. Aside from the lyrical flourishes of his incomplete verse work, “The Fallacies of Hope,” his true feelings are only recorded in his visual art work. All of his paintings, although only a few are explicit in this regard, offer a protest against human cruelty and against slavery and colonial subjugation in particular.

Turner’s body of work as a whole is a staggering achievement, but it is these late paintings that incarnate in the most sophisticated and advanced fashion the strivings of art to grasp and adapt to a challenging new world. There is a great deal to learn and draw from this work, in all its contradictions and ambiguities, in informing and developing the art of our own revolutionary period.