Now deemed one of the world’s great painters, Joseph Mallord William Turner wasn’t always so admired. An ill-spoken Cockeny with eccentric manners and a curious style, Turner was a controversial figure in 19th century London, lampooned in Punch and scorned by critics such as William Hazlitt, who said he produced “pictures of nothing”. In 1841, a London farce featured a scene in which a boy carrying jam tarts falls through the roof of a gallery exhibiting Turner’s paintings. The dealer promptly frames the crumbs and tries to flog them for £1000. Much like Damien Hirst today, he was commercially successful, but often derided.
Despite his London upbringing, Turner was famed for his dramatic representations of storms and seas. Critics were not always impressed. His great swirling seascape Snow Storm (exhibited 1842) was described by The Times as “soapsuds and white-wash”, something that aggrieved Turner who, dubiously, claimed to have observed the storm in question first-hand, tied to the mast of a boat.
Later works were dismissed as the product of a mind gone mad and locked in the cellar of the National Gallery like lunatic aunts. These paintings were the subject of an exhibition at Tate Britain in 2014 (Late Turner: Painting Set Free) while the strange nature of the man himself is explored by Mike Leigh’s film, Mr Turner.
And strange he certainly was. Timothy Spall plays him as a gifted troglodyte, hunched and hook-nosed, communicating in grunts, and that’s not far from the truth. As the critic John Ruskin noted before their meeting, ‘Everybody had described him to me as coarse, boorish, unintellectual and vulgar’. This was partly snobbery. Born in 1775, Turner was the son of a Covent Garden barber and a butcher’s daughter and spoke with such a thick London accent that many in the high-born art world found him incomprehensible. He was eccentric, keeping numerous tail-less cats in a rundown Marylebone house and calling himself Admiral Puggy Booth.
The film shows him visiting brothels, and the artist produces a number of erotic drawings, much to the horror of the National Gallery, who inherited them upon his death in 1851. For decades, it was believed this explicit material had been burnt, but recent research suggests it survived, buried amid the thousands of pieces of paper the artist bequeathed to the nation. The job of sorting through Turner’s 300 paintings and 19,000 drawings and watercolours was given to John Ruskin, a champion of the artist.
As his love of the sea suggests, Turner was a keen traveller. The English and French schools of art were heavily entangled and Turner adored French artist Claude Lorrain, claiming to have cried upon his seeing his ‘Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba’.
In turn, paintings like ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’, ‘Snow Storm’, ‘Sunrise with Sea Monsters’ and ‘Norham Castle, Sunrise’ show the kernel of what became Impressionism. Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro both studied Turner in London and wrote admiringly of his treatment of light.
It’s said that Turner’s hazy skies and seas came from ‘the mistiness and changeability of the British weather’ but they were also a product of the Industrial Revolution (also, he was suffering from cataracts). Unlike the unspoiled cow-drenched idylls of contemporary John Constable, Turner seemed to factor in the atmospheric impact of progress, with skies wreathed in light-changing man-made smoke – as Constable himself noted, Turner seemed to paint with tinted steam’. One of his finest works encapsulates this: ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’ shows a barely perceptible steam train emerging from a yellow fog at Maidenhead, London a yolky smudge in the background. It is probably the first railway-inspired masterpiece, the train powering towards us like the future, unstoppable, unflinching.
Late Turner – Painting Set Free is the first exhibition devoted to the extraordinary work J.M.W. Turner created between 1835 and his death in 1851. Bringing together spectacular works from the UK and abroad, this exhibition celebrates Turner’s astonishing creative flowering in these later years when he produced many of his finest pictures but was also controversial and unjustly misunderstood. It is a panoramic survey of a bountiful and significant period of exceptional energy and vigour, maintained despite failing health.
The exhibition was at Tate Britain from September 2014 to January 2015, and since February, the exhibition has been enthralling audiences at the Getty Centre of the J Paul Getty Museum in LA. The exhibition closes on May 24, so if you are in LA and haven’t seen it yet, now it’s the time to go. From LA, the exhibition will travel to the de Young Museum, San Francisco until September 2015. We saw it in London in October last year.
The exhibition brings together more than 60 key oil paintings and watercolours and shows an artist at the top of his game, totally at ease with his media and still keen to push boundaries and challenge assumptions. Turner produced some of his most innovative and challenging work during the last 16 years of his life and the exhibition celebrates Turner as the most innovative and experimental artist of his time.
Highlights of the exhibition include ‘Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus’ and ‘Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino’, rarely reunited since first exhibited together in 1839; ‘The Wreck Buoy’ (1849); and magnificent watercolours like ‘Heidelberg: Sunset’ (c.1840) and the seldom-seen ‘Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland’ (c.1837).
In his later years, Turner’s continuing fascination with the sea reached a zenith. Although he respected existing conventions of marine painting, particularly its 17th century Dutch roots, he consistently moved beyond them, turning the water into a theatre for drama and effect. He confounded viewers with his bold portrayals of modern maritime action – whales and their hunters battling for survival – while striving to capture the mysterious depths and forces of the elements. The London press at the time greeted Turner’s whaling pictures, such as ‘Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus! Another Fish!’, with scathing attacks, lambasting their yellow palette and lack of finish.
In addition to the sea, Turner’s insatiable appetite for history, different cultures, and sublime natural scenery, drew him time and again to Continental Europe, where he observed not only spectacular sites such as ancient ruins, medieval castles, jagged mountain peaks and meandering rivers, but also local customs and dress. On such travels he made numerous watercolour sketches, which effectively captured fleeting effects of nature on paper. These works display a complex layering of colour animated through the pulsing energy of turbulent handling. They demonstrate both Turner’s commitment to observed natural effects and his unwavering obsession with the vagaries and delights of watercolour, a medium he had indisputably made his own. Some of the finished watercolours he made for sale after his trips, such as ‘The Blue Rigi, Sunrise’, represent pinnacles in the use of watercolour technique.
Turner was especially captivated by the particular combination of light and colour he found in Venice, and revisited the city several times. He traveled lightly, usually alone, making few concessions to his age or failing strength, and drew constantly in his sketchbooks. Turner’s many images of Venice were among his most potent late works, influencing later artists such as James Abbott McNeill Whistler and Claude Monet. For Turner, watercolour was the perfect medium to capture Venice’s aqueous and luminous effects. While based on on-the-spot sketches done in 1840, Turner’s later paintings of Venice drew out the city’s essence and spirit rather than its exact topography.
In later years, Turner was as creative in his approach to media, materials and techniques as he was in his choice of subject matter. He created works that offer some of his most dazzling displays of colour, audacious handling, and complex iconographies. From 1840 to 1846, a smaller canvas for a series of paintings, which were often conceived as pairs expressing opposites. These were principally square, but could also be round or octagonal. Exploring states of consciousness, optics, and the emotive power of colour, they shocked and mystified his audience, who thought them the products of senility or madness. Painted near the end of his life, these inventive works are a coda to Turner’s career, representing a synthesis of his innovations in technique, composition and theme. The exhibition also brings together a group of these unusual square pictures, the first time they have all been shown together.
The episodes Turner picked out from classical myth and biblical fable are boldly reinterpreted when he paints them. With Bacchus and Ariadne, his first square painting, he made no attempt to compete with the ecstatic volatility of the figures in Titian’s painting of the same encounter. Instead the wine god and his tipsy revellers melt in a torrid sensual furnace, a river of molten gold that spills down from a flaring sky. Again Turner evokes something that can scarcely be imagined, let alone made visible: the transfiguration of Ariadne makes her a source of new light, as the jewels in her crown ignite as stars. We are glimpsing a metamorphosis, and Turner therefore paints a metaphor of sexual awakening.
Turner’s watercolours are his most radical works of all. Pale blues and searing pinks touch tiny worlds of feeling into existence. Turner was the first painter who used paint to create a sheer optical rush. When the Tower of London caught fire he captured that as a pure visual thrill in a sequence of watercolours that are barely representational at all.
In 1839, when the painter Paul Delaroche saw the first daguerreotypes (a photograph taken by an early photographic process employing an iodine-sensitized silvered plate and mercury vapour), he said: “From today, painting is dead”. He could not have been more wrong, as Turner’s final works demonstrate. Photography means “writing with light”, but light isn’t necessarily literate, and it doesn’t pencil in outlines or confirm the solidity and separateness of forms. Turner, more perceptively, scribbles, scrawls, doodles and free-associates with light. In his watercolours, composed with “wet-in-wet washes”, a liquid squiggle can suggest a fishing boat, a rapid brush-stroke is able to conjure up a mountain, and a splash of white looks spectral, literally appalling: is the colourless horseman galloping on a stormy beach a glimpse of death, the pale rider?
Perhaps nothing demonstrates Turner’s virtuosity as a painter better than the stories of his performances on “Varnishing Days”. The Royal Academy and the British Institution would set aside a short period of time for artists to put the final touches on their work before an exhibition opened to the public. Turner reveled in the competitive jostling and repartee that occurred on these occasions. In his later years, he would frequently submit canvases with only the roughest indications of colour and form, speedily bringing them to completion on site. Eyewitnesses record that Turner painted most of ‘The Hero of a Hundred Flights’ and “Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons’ on their respective varnishing days. Turner dabbed highlights on his paintings and, to the stupefaction of his colleagues, seemed to animate them by doing so, startling them into life at the very moment when he should have left them fixed and finished.
In late 19th and early 20th century France, the paintings of Turner hovered in the imaginations of artists from Monet to Matisse, who learned from them how colour could be expressive, atmospheric, even abstract. The old cliché that Turner anticipated the Impressionists fades away in this exhibition. Not because it’s untrue, but simply because it is so inadequate to his true influence. If you can see Monet’s ‘Impression: Sunrise’ foreshadowed in his watercolours you can also see how Salvador Dalí and Max Ernst echo Turner’s more surreal moments – his trees that float in the sky like glowing jellyfish or his encrustations of edible-seeming paint.
Art is the exploration of light as it plays on or even sets fire to structure, and of colour as it prismatically opens up the radiance of nature; at its most sublime, it is the art in which sight is intensified and ignited so that it becomes a kind of supernatural vision. Emerging from Turner’s heliocentric cathedral, you have re-accustom your dazzled eyes to the monochrome mock-up we call reality.
The DVD of Mr Turner has been released in Australia today.