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This invigorating exhibition, featuring a wealth of oil paintings, watercolours and sketches by the artist recently voted Britain’s favourite created in his final years, when his art was at its most experimental and critics dubbed him senile, surprises, not so much for its abundant skill, but for its visceral qualities enabling viewers to sense the atmosphere of each scene. One hesitates to simply label Turner a landscape painter, especially as his seascapes intoxicate, at times, nearly to the point of unsteadiness when confronted with swells hinting at darkly cloying depths beneath. How Turner managed to convey so much within the physical confines of his ever inventive work is the true art.
All odds against a cockney born to a barber/wig maker and mentally unstable mother in London’s Covent Garden of 1775 becoming a student at the Royal Academy at 14, full member of the RA and much praised artist by age 26 were cancelled out by the extraordinary talent of young JMW Turner. Turner’s father encouraged his son’s inborn ability and as luck would have it, regularly trimmed the hair and, possibly, wigs of a Royal Academy painter and member, consulting him on his son’s artistic gifts and desires. Coming up with distinctive artworks attuned to the Romanticism of his time was the province of Joseph Mallard William Turner, who handily outshone his competitors. Turner may have been ‘made’ for life, were it not for the fact that his interests, along with the subject matter and methodology of his artworks, were ever expanding, following new paths, not always, as curator David Blayney Brown noted, ‘taking the critics with him,’ at least in relation to his oil paintings. Undeterred, Turner carried on experimenting, breaking previously uncharted ground from the age of 60, an age then thought to signal the onset of senility, until the end of his life fifteen years later. This seminal exhibition is the first to EVER focus on this very vital, intensely exciting era of Turner’s work!
Room one of this ground-breaking exhibition sheds light on some of the themes occupying Turner’s mind and powering his artistic expression, as well as his process and legacy. Works are displayed alongside a couple from more traditional painters of his time, demonstrating the fact that British art was then predominated by epic, classical themes related to mythology and/or biblical tales, faithfully rendered. It is Turner’s unique intermingling of classical with the sublime which still intrigues, as well as his use of chromatics and texture to heighten tension in his paintings lending a sense of drama.
Ever one to travel, Turner’s journeys began in his late teens and carried on through most of his life. This exhibition follows him, in a fashion, on his most ambitious tour of Europe ever, in 1835, as always, accompanied by small journals in which he sketched reminders of the culture, customs and landscape around him, at times leading to full scale watercolours or oil paintings. It becomes clear very early on in the exhibition that all three modes of expression, sketching, watercolours and oil painting were equally important to his artistic development. Venice and Switzerland, in particular, the latter of which he visited five times during this period, provided inspiration, which he continued to draw on, even after physical journeys ended, with the resulting watercolours seemingly reflecting his blurred memories of the places they conveyed, without sacrificing any of the feeling of being in their locales. One reoccurring travel theme was Turner’s beloved Swiss mountain repeatedly appearing in his sketchbooks and watercolours, pencilled, painted, portrayed at all times of day, in all weathers. The Blue Rigi, Sunrise (1842) stately rising above the mist, is nearly as serenely beautiful as it is ethereal.
‘Past and Present’, houses classic themes leading into explorations of modernity, drawing on lessons learned from history, among them, Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844) balancing the artist’s training and background with classical landscape against his growing interest in the changing world around him. Turner was a classic presenter of modernity, in all its guises, be they water or land bound and with 17th Century landscape painter Claude Lorrain as his inspiration, the inventions and innovations of the start of the Industrial Revolution become things of strange beauty and impressive power, accepted progressions along the natural lines of history. Turner’s abiding appreciation of nature and the natural world is ever present, coexisting alongside modern advances.
Highly controversial in their day, Turner’s circle within a square canvases are displayed here, a testament to his innovation as an ever experimental artist, resulting in distinctively different ways of making and displaying art. Viewed as proof of impending lunacy, even by his former defender John Ruskin, they are bold explorations of colour and subject matter, also touching on his approach to formerly traditional themes, proving Turner’s resiliency as an experimental artist who cared little for critical praise. Begun in 1840, the series went on until 1846 and the results are incredibly evocative, especially given the smaller, less traditional dimensions of their working space and framework. Another Tate first – this exhibition within an exhibition marks the first time all of these canvases have ever been displayed together, and they are being shown here in their recently restored frames!
Turner’s enduring fascination with the sea expanded through his exploration of emerging sciences relating to the earth’s magnetic fields and weather and there are some stirring examples of that here. Most notably among them, Snow-Storm, Steamboat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842), engulfs, its’ vortex of sky colliding with bounding surf, the two seemingly, rising and dashing against and above the horizon, where a comparatively tiny steamboat struggles to maintain its equilibrium bringing viewers right into the heart of the action, reminding us of man’s minuteness, compared to the ever expansive power of nature. Whaling, a very contemporary occupation of that time, was also explored through Turner’s paintings. Personal anecdotes and incidents shed further light upon Turner as a man, i.e., the way in which he pursued hoped for animosity, changing his moniker to ‘Admiral Booth’ to coincide with his mistress, Mrs Booth, his former holiday landlady from Margate, who went on to live with him in his riverside home in Chelsea. Further accreditation was given to his ocean faring title via a visit from American sea Captain Elisha Ely Morgan, who reportedly, ‘saw through all the fog and mystery,’ to the ‘real sea feeling there was in him (Turner) and his work.’
Last Works of Turner show no waning of his penchant for experimentation and three of the last four works shown at the Royal Academy in 1850 are on show here, a seemingly, defiant blending of old and new styles, abstraction meets classicism, with pastoral tranquillity shot through with Modernism, long before the term was coined. Swiss watercolours which appear to be unfinished, hint at further breaking down of perceivable forms. Though it may seem as though this old master was then, receding into the twilight, nothing could have been further from the truth, as Turner’s departure was simply, atypically unceremonious; his legacy speaks far more than words could say.