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.
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.
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.
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.