More than meets the eye

The first major Australian exhibition of JMW Turner’s work in 20 years explores the evolution of a master.

A Mike Leigh-directed film on the English Romantic artist JMW Turner is scheduled for 2014. This biopic will be a bells and whistles version. “You don’t make a film about Turner,” Leigh commented, “and cut the exteriors. This is a guy who strapped himself to the mast of a ship to paint a storm. He’s for real.” The National Portrait Gallery holds a death mask, which reveals that at the end of his life Turner had lost all his teeth. So actor Timothy Spall, who has been chosen to play Turner in Leigh’s movie, will have his work cut out sucking in his cheeks while uttering deathless lines like ‘light is therefore colour’ or ‘painting is a rummy business’. Across his lifetime Turner avoided being drawn or painted and it was left to some fellow artists and caricaturists to fill the gap, with most versions resembling Mr Punch. Now the exciting news for Turner spotters. A drawing of Turner by a contemporary, the artist Cornelius Varley, may be the real thing. Silent Witness has nothing on this story. An MA student at Dundee University has superimposed an image of Varley’s 1851 drawing onto a 3D laser scan of Turner’s death mask. Bingo. Well Bingo-ish. Forensic scientists and Turner experts at 10 paces.

While more prosaic souls continue this quest to uncover hard evidence of the life of this most elusive and enigmatic of artists, the rest of the world can celebrate the fact that, through his work, Turner has left a vast collection of self-portraits - of his inner imagination and soul. The reason the world knows about the artist is that his reputation as one of the giants of Romantic landscape painting precedes him. His life’s work is visual art’s counterpart to the inspired expression of the Romantic poets, Wordsworth, Keats, Byron and others. They all drank at the front bar of the Sublime. For the Romantics, sublime experience was associated with nature at its most awesome. For artists, including Turner, nothing could beat a good Alp, or craggy gorge for that matter. Turner had his fill when he made the first of a number of journeys to Europe. One painting, The Devil’s Bridge, near Andermatt, Pass of St Gotthard, 1802, is a fine example of the artist’s free-spirited ‘attack’ on the subject. It also provides an insight into Turner’s determination to capture the moment in both visual and emotional terms. By the time Turner crossed the Channel he was primed to engage with all that nature could offer him. His landscape as well as marine subject apprenticeship had been long and fruitful, tramping the English countryside in the late 1700s. Atmospherics, particularly the play of light and fleeting weather conditions, are the central focus of many of the studies he made while travelling.

Humanity and nature, the grand themes of Turner’s art, are everywhere to be found in the Turner from the Tate: The Making of a Master exhibition, at the Art Gallery of South Australia from Friday, February 8. This is the first major Australian exhibition of Turner’s work in 20 years. Embedded within almost 100 works (including a number never previously exhibited) are all the narratives which continue to define Turner in the public imagination as a landscapist, an observer of modern life, a life-long student of tradition, shrewd businessman, sometimes a rebel and above all a romantic spirit who, in his later luminous paintings in particular, speaks directly to contemporary audiences.

Much has been written about this aspect of Turner’s work, particularly the ‘abstraction‘ of late works. One perspective is that this claiming of Turner as a proto-modern, an impressionist certainly, abstract expressionist or even a minimalist artist has been driven by a need to give the modernist project some historical roots. Another has been to associate the late Turners with like works from later generations. An example is the 2012 Tate Liverpool exhibition Turner, Monet, Twombly: Later Paintings exhibition which ran Turner landscapes against some Monet Water Lilies and works from American later 20th century artist Cy Twombly’s Blooming series. In such company the late and the ‘unfinished’ Turners look kindred spirits. But as Turner scholar Andrew Winton comments, this retrospectivity may come at a cost. This ‘Turner is great because he is so modern’ mindset, he suggests, discounts the worth of the artist’s earlier work which to eyes primed for essentialist expression look dark and overcrowded with details. Wilton’s advice is to celebrate the numinous passages of colour and brushwork but also make the connection with the narrative and symbolic elements that run throughout his entire work. His other advice is that Turner, from his earliest years, was an innovator, and as an example, considers Turner’s watercolour studies, made in Snowdonia in 1799 when the artist was 24, to be among his most original contributions to the history of art. Exhibition Curator Jane Messenger supports this perspective. “What makes the exhibition so remarkable is that it traces Turner’s evolution as an artist … He really did change the possibilities of what art could be and you only, fully appreciate that by seeing his early work.”

Art aside (if possible), one of the most fascinating aspects of Turner’s practice to be encountered in the exhibition, is the artist’s engagement with the modern world. It is extraordinary. Here is a man who paints works that are steeped in an understanding of the classical and old master traditions. Yet the same artist has an eye for the advent of the modern era as seen in Peace – Burial at Sea (1842), one of Turner’s classic ‘steam & sail’ images, and for contemporary social issues as seen in A Disaster at Sea c. 1835, based on the wreck of the convict ship The Amphitrite, and the avoidable death of nearly all on board, mostly women and children bound for a new life in Australia. As always with Turner there is more than meets the eye.

Turner from the Tate: The Making of a Master
Art Gallery of South Australia
Friday, February 8 to Sunday, May 19

Photo 1: J.M.W. Turner, Venice, the Bridge of Sighs, exhibited 1840. Photo: (c) Tate, 2013
Photo 2: J.M.W. Turner, The Devil’s Bridge, near Andermatt, Pass of St Gotthard (detail), 1802. Photo: (c) Tate, 2013



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