WITHOUT TURNER THERE IS NO MODERNISM

1841 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 Photography © Tate, London
1841 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 Photography © Tate, London

Many of us criticize the idea of art history as the story of a handful of geniuses, but in the case of Joseph Mallord William Turner, that approach seems totally justified. In the first half of the 19th century, the British painter – along with Goya – pretty much invented modernism.

The Art Gallery of Ontario’s Painting Set Free show contains 50 or so of Turner’s late works, most from the 1840s (he died in 1851), on tour from Tate Britain. So successful he no longer had to please critics and collectors, the mature master was free to follow his painterly instincts in depictions of a luminous world almost entirely made of light, water and weather.

De-materialized boats, Venetian buildings, historical scenes or religious subjects shimmer distantly in the mist, reminding us that these remarkable works were painted in the 19th century.

A room of “sample studies,” small watercolour sketches of Switzerland from which patrons could order larger works, presents a strong case for Turner as the greatest watercolourist of all time. In the pre-photography age when cultivated people recorded their travels in watercolour, he was in a different class entirely. Laid on with supreme confidence, his brushstrokes suggest Alpine peaks and lakes in a style reminiscent of Chinese and Japanese ink painting – but in radiant pinks, yellows, blues and violets.

The Blue Rigi, a larger watercolour based on one such study, is only minimally more detailed than the sketches. With the same spontaneous brushwork, Turner’s added a few ducks – supposedly a pun on his middle name – and boats to the lake that reflects the semi-abstract form of the looming blue mountain.

A monitor playing the lashed-to-the-mast scene from Mike Leigh’s recent Mr. Turner (the paintings easily overshadow the gallery’s small attempts at distraction) accompanies Snow Storm – Steam-Boat Off A Harbour’s Mouth, an almost totally abstract, roiling image that perhaps illustrated nature’s triumph over technology.

The AGO may have outgrown its original mandate to showcase British art, but we can be grateful for this exemplary return to form, enabling us to experience Turner’s work in person.

by Fran Schechter

Source: Now Toronto

 

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J.M.W. Turner: From an old dog, new painting tricks

Joseph Mallord William Turner is the epitome of how great second acts can come late in life, and the ideal antidote to the cult of youth our everything-millennial culture seems to value. He had his great epiphanies well into his 60s and had he not, well, painting as we know it may never have happened.

So it makes sense the Art Gallery of Ontario’s big Turner show, which opened Oct. 31, is called Painting Set Free. Why Turner found sudden liberty in his later years is anybody’s guess — maybe being older, surly and a financial success (which he was) made him, like a lot of old men I know, not give a damn what anyone thought — but his defiance of convention stands as one of the great innovations in the history of painting.

A viewer stands with Turner's Snow Storm, a roiling sea and a steam ship caught in it. It was widely panned when it was made but is now seen as one of his great acheivements.
A viewer stands with Turner’s Snow Storm, a roiling sea and a steam ship caught in it. It was widely panned when it was made but is now seen as one of his great achievements. Aaron Harris

Shifting from picture-perfect pastoral landscapes, often of the English countryside — for which his countryman, John Constable, remains revered — Turner went in pursuit of grander things: a complex swirl of myth and history, and a society and world becoming increasingly consumed by modernity’s lengthening shadow.

This was the time of rampant industrialization and of globe-spanning wars over colonial spoils, and for Turner, the quaint quiltwork of rolling English farmland seems to have been less urgent and more a retreat. More than that, he was a wanderer, ranging all over Europe, his eye always hungry for new scenes and new light.

He painted invasions and despoilment — Napoleon, standing on a blood-soaked battlefield; a wounded warship smoking black from within, conducting a burial at sea — but in the end, Turner’s subject was light, and how both its glare and absence could obscure, unsettle or, often as not, serve as a portal to the transcendent.

The Hero of a Hundred Fights shown at the AGO's Turner exhibtion. The artist reworked the painting more than a decade after it was finished to include the radiant sphere at its heart.
 The Hero of a Hundred Fights shown at the AGO’s Turner exhibition. The artist reworked the painting more than a decade after it was finished to include the radiant sphere at its heart. Aaron Harris.

Precious and tiny, almost an entire room at the AGO is given over to his watercolour sketches — things he would never show in public, according to David Blayney Brown, the curator at the Tate Britain, from whom the show is borrowed. But you can see how instructive these works are: he experimented with a painterly vocabulary that best expressed his spiritual way of seeing. They’re indistinct, ghostly and radiant.

Through The Hero of a Hundred Fights, a big, dark canvas with a radiant centre of a statue emerging from a forge that Turner reworked almost a decade after it was finished (Brown said that, for Turner, a painting was hardly ever finished), we reach the seaside and the engine of Turner’s creative imagination.

Fishing Boats Bringing a Disabled Ship Into Port Ruysdael shown at the AGO's Turner exhibition.
Aaron Harris Fishing Boats Bringing a Disabled Ship Into Port Ruysdael shown at the AGO’s Turner exhibition.

Roiling waves and desperate storms, and their sunny, wet-slick aftermaths, fed both Turner’s soul and the creative force he displayed in those final years. Paintings like Snow Storm, of a steam ship trapped in a vortex of cloud and sea, seems almost in motion; others, like Sea Monster, are a playful wash of golden sun and beach, near merged at the horizon, with the titular figure all but washed out in the luminous haze.

It’s not a far bridge to cross when you learn that the Impressionists — Monet and his ilk — looked back to Turner for inspiration, and indeed guidance, in the decades after his death.

And so Modern painting was born, with a posthumous assist from Turner, whether he liked it or not. Painting hurtled into the 20th century from that point, to forever be challenged, broken and reassembled. And all from an old dog, whose new tricks still seem fresh and remarkable nearly 200 years after his death.

Source: thestar.com

Punk with a paintbrush: how Turner sunk the Empire

Battle of Trafalgar by JMW Turner. Photograph: National Maritime Museum
Battle of Trafalgar by JMW Turner. Photograph: National Maritime Museum

The sea broils with war. Sails hover like veils above the dead and dying. Is this the Victory or defeat?

JMW Turner’s painting The Battle of Trafalgar 21 October 1805 is well worth looking at on Trafalgar Day, 210 years after Nelson’s stunning defeat of the French and Spanish fleets that changed the course of the Napoleonic wars and established a British naval supremacy that lasted into modern times.

This great battle painting, which rightly has a room to itself in the National Maritime Museum, has some strange things about it. The survivors of Trafalgar who saw it when it was completed in 1824 were not happy at all. Turner’s sublime array of interwoven French and British ships gathered round the shining wooden wall of HMS Victory did not look like their memories. But most troubling of all – and most striking today – is Turner’s portrayal of human suffering at the centre of his painting.

Men whose ships have sunk or who have been thrown overboard by cannon blasts (men on both sides) are clinging to boats and wreckage in the wild sea, with a huge union jack floating, like a shroud, over the grisly waters.

The human suffering at the centre of Battle of Trafalgar by JMW Turner. Photograph: National Maritime Museum
The human suffering at the centre of Battle of Trafalgar by JMW Turner. Photograph: National Maritime Museum

Turner is doing something even more daring here than first meets the eye. This focus on the dead, the dying and the wounded seems subversive in a picture of a great British victory. But it is all the darker when you recognise his pictorial source. In 1820, two years before Turner got commissioned by George IV to paint his Trafalgar epic, a shocking work of art was shown at the Egyptian Hall in London. It was The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault – a terrifying scene of starving, perhaps cannibal, victims of an ocean disaster struggling to survive on a raft on the open sea.

When you realise Turner must have seen The Raft of the Medusa in 1820 it is easy to see how he quotes it visually in his painting of Trafalgar. The swarm of men in the water resemble the poor people on Géricault’s bereft raft. A near-naked body slung over the side of a boat in the foreground of Turner’s picture, trailing in the water, closely replicates a very similar figure that is one of the most harrowing details in The Raft of the Medusa.

The Raft of the Medusa is a vision of utter despair. To quote it in a painting of a famous victory is spectacularly subversive. But Turner had unpatriotic form.

 The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault. Photograph: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images
The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault. Photograph: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

In a previous painting of Trafalgar, done just after the battle itself and today in Tate Britain, Turner imagines how the battle looked from the Mizen Starboard shrouds of the Victory. It looks like hell. A terrible smoky entanglement of masts and rigging looms over ships fighting at close quarters. Men lie dead and dying everywhere, hit by bullets as cannon blast into the invisible lower decks. Among the fallen is Nelson – but the heroic admiral who died at the moment of his greatest triumph is just one of the victims of a battle both fair and foul.

War is chaos, it is a nightmare. That is Turner’s take on military heroism. He shows another scene of devastation, where friend and enemy are equal in death, in his painting The Field of Waterloo.

We must remember battles. We must remember what they are really like. Great art helps us to see that, on Trafalgar Day and every day.

by Jonathan Jones

Source: The Guardian

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