when art is the poorest imitation of life

When imitation is the poorest form of flattery; when representation should mean so much more.

We went to the MFA’s Art in Bloom exhibit yesterday. Here is one of the works that is supposed to [let’s use the word] correspond to a painting. We can talk about what it is and then I’ll reveal the painting. And then I’ll reveal the story of the painting. You’ll tell me if it works.


We can all agree that this is in the shape of a boat; with the grasses across the top symbolizing the masts. And maybe if you are astute, you may figure out that the reds must symbolize some kind of fire. But it seems fairly peaceful. There’s no real indication of any large conflagration, is there?

Here’s the painting now.



If you click on the photo, you may be able to get more of a sense of the horror that Turner was showing in his painting Slave Ship. Here is some of the account that the MFA offers:

When Turner exhibited this picture at the Royal Academy in 1840 he paired it with the following extract from his unfinished and unpublished poem “Fallacies of Hope” (1812):

“Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;

Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds

Declare the Typhon’s coming.

Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard

The dead and dying – ne’er heed their chains

Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope!

Where is thy market now?”

For the full text of Turner’s verse see A. J. Finberg, The Life of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., 2nd ed., 1961, p. 474

One of Turner’s most celebrated works, Slave Ship is a striking example of the artist’s fascination with violence, both human and elemental. The painting was based on a poem that described a slave ship caught in a typhoon, and on the true story of the slave ship Zong whose captain, in 1781, had thrown overboard sick and dying slaves so that he could collect insurance money available only for slaves “lost at sea.” Turner captures the horror of the event and terrifying grandeur of nature through hot, churning color and light that merge sea and sky. The critic John Ruskin, the first owner of Slave Ship, wrote, “If I were reduced to rest Turner’s immortality upon any single work, I should choose this.”

There is a great audio link on the same page that to me is much more effective in showing that

“Art often has a sensational quality,” (the first words of the link).

I was attracted to this piece in particular because today is Yom HaShoah, the commemoration of the Holocaust. This painting to me evokes how we again and again devalue human life so easily, tossing it overboard. We do not seem to learn. We need more than imitation.

We need an accounting. We need to know the Fallacies of Hope.




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