“J.M.W. Turner at the de Young: Painting Set Not Included”: A confusing title for an amazing exhibition

Visitors to the de Young Museum’s ongoing exhibition of J.M.W. Turner’s late works gush, for the most part, about the famous British artist’s use of color, light and “dazzling” depictions of stormy ocean weather. But what about those who are feeling a bit let down?

Although the museum advertises the exhibition across the city on banners, buses and posters in shop windows with the headline “J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free,” visitors do not actually get — as these words might be interpreted — free painting sets after shelling out $20 ($25 on weekends) for a ticket to see the show.

Ah, syntactic ambiguity! What a timeless and often hilarious linguistic hazard. Ken Garcia, the de Young’s director of government and community affairs, says a few visitors inquired after free painting sets when a sign bearing the show’s title appeared in the museum store in advance of the exhibition. But those queries quickly petered out. Garcia can’t say for sure if they were serious or in jest.

Painting Set Free is actually a travelling exhibition, making its third stop at the de Young after stints at the Tate Museum in London and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Neither the Tate nor the Getty handed out free painting sets during their shows.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Norham Castle, Sunrise, ca.1845. (Photo: Tate, London)
Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Norham Castle, Sunrise, ca.1845. (Photo: Tate, London)

Shortly after the exhibition opened in Sept. 2014 at the Tate, a cheeky University of Birmingham professor took the pun to Twitter. “How lovely of@Tate to give away free sets of paints when you go to see their Turner exhibition!#paintingsetfree,” joked@draliceroberts.

Amy Hood, senior communications specialist for the J. Paul Getty Trust, says it’s all in good fun. “Once or twice, when the show first opened, visitors inquired,” Hood says. “But I hear that they themselves were joking; just having fun with the pun.”

Hood says the show was extraordinarily popular. But concrete data on whether or not patrons thronged to the museum to collect on a misconstrued offer of free stuff is impossible to gather.

Did the exhibition arrive in San Francisco with a warning from its previous hosts? No, Garcia says. It didn’t warrant such a disclaimer.

If we could travel back in time and have some input with the exhibition naming committee, we might propose some alternate subtitles to alleviate any confusion, real or otherwise:

J.M.W. Turner: Paintings of Storms, Ships and Smoke
J.M.W. Turner: The Original Painter of Light
J.M.W. Turner: Your Grandmother Will Love this Show

Just under two months remain to see Painting Set Free at the de Young. But keep this in mind: If Turner’s moody oils and expressive watercolors inspire you to pick up a brush, you’ll need to procure your own supplies.

by Sarah Hotchkiss

Source: KQED Arts

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