Sunday, 9 November 2014

And the prize goes to ... Turner

Peace – Burial at Sea
Poet Kenneth Roxworth once described the English painter, JMW Turner, as a “romantic abstract expressionist”, and more than one commentator has sought to link him directly to the Impressionists and, more recently still, to modern, abstract art.

But, rather akin to people describing some upcoming film star as the ‘new Gable’ or the ‘new Bogart’ etc, that merely illustrates an apparent human obsession with taxonification, pigeon-holing and tribalism, at the same time as revealing limits on our willingness to accept the new.

Turner is Turner is Turner.

He was influenced by and subsequently influenced many others: it’s incredibly easy to see his influence on Monet, for instance, but one wouldn't call the latter a ‘Turnerite’ or any such conceit.

His oeuvre, right up to the final works, reflected the issues and culture of his times. He never ceased painting traditional artistic subjects: scenes from history, from the Bible, mythology, the Classical world and the contemporary world – with political comment sometimes included.

He traveled widely and frequently and, when doing so, worked furiously in his sketchbooks.

Rain, Steam and Speed
So just what was so special about Turner that he is widely regarded as the greatest English painter ever?

Late Turner: Setting Painting Free is the autumn/winter blockbuster at the Tate Britain – and a blockbuster it most certainly is.

Hot on the heels of the Tate Modern’s look at late works by Matisse – and opening just a few weeks before the National Gallery's exhibition of late Rembrandt – this is the first major show to bring together works exclusively from the last 16 years of Turner’s life.

While it’s a shame that it doesn’t include the iconic and deeply political The Fighting Temeraire (1838), which hangs in the National Gallery (is there a link between its absence here and the privatisation plans at that gallery?), there is more than enough to satisfy and to convey a rounded sense of this period of the artist’s career.

Besides, we do have Rain, Steam and Speed (1844), which os a wonderful piece of active composition, but which has also triggered a great deal of analysis about what sort of a statement it was and, most particularly, whether it was a comment on the negative nature of industrialisation.

The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons
There has been some carping that much of what is on display is already in the Tate’s own collection, so should see the exhibition price reduced, but there are also treats that are not seen often in this country – such as The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons (1834-35), which is owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

That includes many figures in the foreground, one of whom, apparently in clerical garb, is speculated to be William Tyndale, the Protestant reformer and Bible translator, who was burned at the stake for heresy in 1536.

To have him witnessing the fire could well be one of Turner’s political statements.

But wherever the works are usually housed, this exhibition presents a wonderful opportunity to get a real sense of Turner's work if you haven’t done so before.

Mont Blanc and the Glacier des Bossons
Reading an interview in the Tate magazine with Mike Leigh, whose new, Cannes-lauded film, Mr Turner, is now on general release, it was fascinating to discover that he had initially viewed the artist, together with Constable, as a “chocolate box” painter.

I spent years thinking the same, and this exhibition offered me a first chance to really get a big dose of the works.

One of the particular joys here – and it’s a revelation too, if you’re not familiar with them – is the watercolours, which have a vibrancy of colour that is astonishing.

Mont Blanc and the Glacier des Bossons from above Chamonix; Evening 1836, for instance, is beautiful.

Indeed, colour is what dominates: colour and light and movement.

I had, prior to going into the exhibition itself, had a bit of a trot around the gallery’s core collection of British art – particularly that from Turner’s own period – in order to remind myself of the context.

One thing that struck me forcefully later, was that I could not recall seeing anything like the palette that Turner himself used – particularly the blues and golds.

Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory)
There is a radiance to his work that lights a room. Figure painting was not his forte, as the enigmatically-titled War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet (1842) illustrates perfectly, with it’s oddly tall and thin rendering of Napoleon.

Fortunately, in most cases he didn’t bother to do much more than suggest figures.

The companion piece to the Napoleon one, Peace - Burial at Sea (1842), depicts the burial of sea of painter Sir David Wilkie, who had died of typhoid while on board. A tribute to a colleague, it is one of the most powerful images on display.

The same series of experimental square canvases that includes Boney also features Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory) – The Morning After the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis (1843), in which the figure is so lost in the swirl of light as to be almost indiscernible, so as with other canvases, what the viewer is mainly looking at is incandescent light.

But then, as the catalogue posits, this might not have been intended as the Moses of the Old Testament, but a reference to entomologist Moses Harris, who had penned the standard 18th-century chromatic theory, The Natural History of Colours.

These canvases are displayed in a single room with the walls painted a deep blue – a wonderful move that really accentuates the light that radiates from them.

The difficulty in dealing with Turner is illustrated clearly by some of the final canvases, which were almost certainly unfinished – he often only finished a work when it was just supposed to be being prepared for exhibition.

Norham Castle, Sunrise
Norham Castle, Sunrise (1845) is a perfect example of one of these (probably) unfinished works that, to our eyes – accustomed to Monet and to Abstract Expressionism – seems complete.

It’s easy to imagine that the man now revered around the world was always highly thought of, but that’s not quite the case.

In his later years, even his supporter, John Ruskin, thought he’d lost his marbles and, with them, the artistic plot.

And while Turner left vast amounts of his work to the nation, the nation didn’t seem entirely sure what to do about such a bequest.

The 20th century was well into its stride when the then director of the National Gallery, Kenneth Clarke, found 20 unrolled canvases, thick with grime, in a “small and remote vault,” which he thankfully decided to check before ordering someone to throw them away.

This exhibition is a glorious valediction, and one that, instead of looking to the past, looks – to our eyes – very much to what was then still some way in the future.

The Tate has also done a great job with the catalogue too but, as with the pictures shown here, no reproduction can do justice to these pictures; to the light, the colour and the movement.

You really do need to seem them in the ‘flesh’ to fully appreciate the magnificence – and revolutionary nature – of Turner’s late work.

It’s well worth the effort to visit.

• Turner: The late years, is at the Tate Britain until 25 January.

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