Staffa, Fingal’s Cave

Gateway to British Art Prize 2022
First place: CJ Perez

Art and time have a very rocky relationship with each other. An art piece could be timeless, inspiring countless interpretations from people for centuries after its creation. On the flip side, an art piece can be stuck in its time, being a gateway to the past and allowing us to live the lives of those who came before us. Art can even be lost to time, being a confusing piece that makes us question how we lived in our past. The marriage of art and time is as deep as it is fascinating. There is one piece that speaks to me in particular on all these facets of art and time’s relationship, that piece being John Mallord William Turner’s Staffa, Fingal’s Cave

Now, some might look at this small piece and be a little confused as to what I mean; at first glance it’s just some landscape, a figure of puffing-up smoke in the distance, clouds, and that’s about it. But in its simplicity is truly where its beauty lies. The context of this piece is pretty simple: Turner went on a trip by steamship to the island of Staffa, a storm came during his trip to land, and thus he painted this. With this description it makes the piece pretty clear now. However, when I first saw this piece I thought I was staring at the Eye of Sauron from The Lord of the Rings. This big menacing figure conjures up modern imagery of factories and their effect on the climate. I’ve shown it to several of my friends, family, and even my professor himself who had this takeaway just at first glance. There’s such modern nihilism conjured in this piece simply through a tall black figure puffing smoke. It’s such a common image that now, nearly two hundred years later, it still depicts something recognizable and culturally relevant in today’s society. This speaks to not only the power of the darkness within the artwork, but also how truly timeless it has become.

Whilst on the topic of nihilism and the darkness in the piece, let’s talk about Turner’s past work and how the use of lighting in this piece is very different from his other works. Turner’s pieces were criticized and called “whities” back in the day because he painted on a white background and did very little to hide that. This is due to the very strong lighting of his works, having very strong whites shining through the piece to contrast the areas of shadow within.

However, Staffa, Fingal’s Cave is actually bending this rule of his artwork. The brilliant white that’s almost a staple of his work is very muted, almost a gray even. This haziness of the painting truly adds a stark contrast to the dark nihilism and almost feels like a state of confusion in this world of color. Now adding the context of this piece with the color, it paints a picture of a world at the beginning of the industrial revolution. It depicts a world where yes, there is brightness in the future, but the machinery such as the steamship is so big and distracting that it’s a deafening change to the state of the world. A quote from Turner recalling the storm helps this idea: “The sun getting towards the horizon, burst through the rain cloud, angry.” The personification of the angry sun in the distance adds to these themes of a changed and bitter new world.

The artwork’s figures such as the angry sun in the corner are actually harder to notice as the years go by. This actually represents the dance between art, time, and obscurity. The meaning of this piece, while it can be interpreted as a big factory in the distance, only proves without a shadow of a doubt that this piece is lost to its time. The way the cave, the sea, and the sky aren’t boldly defined confuses the modern viewer’s eye. And this creates almost a need for the viewer to look for meaning in the border of the work. The only discernible thing is the tall figure billowing out smoke and this is why we come to this modern conclusion of what it means. But truly it adds another layer of wonder to it all. The fact that you can look at the date and be like, “Oh, this isn’t about climate change” leads you to wonder, “So what was he saying?” And thus its being lost to time in what it represents only repeats the cycle of education and appreciation of Turner’s work.

Turner is truly an artist who represents what it means to dance with time. Not only has his work stood the test of time physically and changed how people paint light, but also his art represents a different time that is both very familiar and unknown. Time and art flow together beautifully and naturally, even if that means what the art means to people changes with time. Time changes how we reflect on art, while art can change how we reflect on time. This piece truly touches me on a deeper level than most. Surrounded by so many light clouds and ships, this little dark painting is the one piece that truly captivated me. I find that this little dark piece, lost in time, truly speaks to what it means to create art.

Top image
Joseph Mallord William Turner, Staffa, Fingal's Cave (detail), 1831 to 1832, oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection