Retrospective: Rediscovering the genius of Turner

Doubts were widespread until late June if summer would ever come this year to the South of France. Skies were overcast, and when it rained constantly with temperatures dropping to near freezing points, organisers at the Caumont Centre d’Art — which opened the Turner exhibition in the otherwise normally sunny city of Aix-en-Provence — feared not many art enthusiasts, especially foreigners, would cross their threshold.

Their fears proved unfounded as bright, sunny and lengthy days finally arrived. So did visitors who were stunned to discover the sun-washed 130 or so masterpieces on display, as flamboyant and colourful as the outdoor scenes in Aix-en-Provence itself. It is a pleasure to see these paintings again and again.

The title “Turner and the Colours” is aptly chosen for the exhibition follows, in a thematically advancing course, the astounding career of one of the greatest British artists of all times. As one studies the landscapes and seascapes placed in a chronological order, one cannot miss the point that chiefly self-taught, Joseph Mallord William Turner (born in London in 1775) was initially inspired by Baroque and Renaissance-age Italian and French geniuses such as Titian, Canaletto and Poussin.

The Caumont Centre d’Art in France gave an opportunity for art enthusiasts to experience the astounding work of one of the greatest British artists of all times

Boats in a Gale

After ‘Fishermen at the Sea’, that he painted at the age of 21, Turner would remain fascinated throughout his long career by vast, panoramic outdoor scenes and the sun in all its moods, forms and colours.

An important part of Turner’s career was his incessant travels, first between London and the Scottish countryside; then from 1802 until the end of his life in 1851, to France, Switzerland, Holland and Italy. The sea and the skylight in Venice would remain one of the main sources of his inspiration. This was evident in his work, especially in ‘The Deluge’.

From 1840 onwards Turner would also try a new experiment and would excel in it as he did in all his other daring artistic adventures. This was a kaleidoscopic angle through which he saw the mountain peaks of Switzerland, the riverbanks of France and the sea waves of Holland and Italy — painting hallucinating scenes in a circular style that would later become his trademark. His painting ‘Morning after the Deluge’ is another one of such spheroid creations.

Turner was, however, way ahead of his time and his contemporary art critics often made fun of what was then considered his incomprehensible and mind-boggling method. But there were also those who readily recognised his genius and qualified him as a visionary and a magician of colours.

Another source of Turner’s inspiration would remain the Baroque age French-Italian painter Claude Gellée, known as Le Lorrain, in whose works horizons in land and sea depictions strike onlookers as what appear to be scenes from an earthy paradise. In his lifetime Turner donated two of his paintings to the National Gallery of Art in London, but under the condition that they be displayed with a work of Le Lorrain between them. Today you still see that setting intact at the National Gallery.

The arrangement of Turner’s paintings in the Caumont Centre d’Art in Aix-en-Provence emphasises his gradual abandoning of visual landscapes as he matured and the increasing confidence in his imagination and the fantasies he created. Works painted in the final years of his career such as ‘Moses writing Genesis’ fall into this category.

Though the reputation of the ‘Painter of Light’, as he is often called, chiefly depended on his oil works, JMW Turner also created a large amount of watercolour masterpieces and his contribution in this field too remains undeniable.

The exhibition began on May 4th and will last until the September 18th at Centre d’Art, Aix-en-Provence, France

by Zafar Masud

Source: DAWN



The banknote features a self-portrait of JMW Turner and one of his best works
The banknote features a self-portrait of JMW Turner and one of his best works


Mr Carney, the Bank’s governor, said: “Turner is perhaps the single most influential British artist of all time. His work was transformative, bridging the classical and modern worlds. His influence spanned his lifetime and is still apparent today.


The banknote features Turner’s self-portrait, from 1799, currently on display in the Tate Britain, and one of his most eminent paintings – The Fighting Temeraire – which can be seen in the National Gallery. In 2005, the painting – a tribute to the ship HMS Temeraire in Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 – was voted Britain’s greatest painting in a poll organised by the BBC.

The quote on the banknote – “Light is therefore colour” – comes from an 1818 lecture by Turner at the Royal Academy, where he first exhibited at the age of 15. His signature is from his will in which he bequeathed his work to the nation.


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The truth about Hannibal’s route across the Alps

How exactly did the Carthaginian general and his elephants reach Italy? Scientists have got their hands dirty to come up with an answer.

 A painting of Hannibal and his army on the wall of the Capitoline Museum, Rome. Photograph: Alamy
A painting of Hannibal and his army on the wall of the Capitoline Museum, Rome. Photograph: Alamy

Having battled their deadly rivals the Romans in Spain, in 218BC the Carthaginian army made a move that no one expected. Their commander Hannibal marched his troops, including cavalry and African war elephants, across a high pass in the Alps to strike at Rome itself from the north of the Italian peninsula. It was one of the greatest military feats in history.

An illustration of Hannibal crossing the Alps with elephants and horses. Photograph: Getty Images/Dorling Kindersley
An illustration of Hannibal crossing the Alps with elephants and horses. Photograph: Getty Images/Dorling Kindersley

The Romans had presumed that the Alps created a secure natural barrier against invasion of their homeland. They hadn’t reckoned with Hannibal’s boldness. In December he smashed apart the Roman forces in the north, assisted by his awesome elephants, the tanks of classical warfare. Many of the animals died of cold or disease the following winter, but Hannibal fought his way down throughItaly. For 15 years he ravaged the land, killing or wounding over a million citizens but without taking Rome. But when he faced the Roman general Scipio Africanus at Zama in north Africa in 202BC, his strategic genius met its match. So ended the second Punic war, with Rome the victor.

Hannibal’s alpine crossing has been celebrated in myth, art and film. JMW Turnermade high drama of it in 1812, a louring snowstorm sending the Carthaginians into wild disarray. The 1959 sword-and-sandals epic movie, with Victor Mature in the eponymous title role, made Hannibal’s “crazed elephant army” look more like the polite zoo creatures they obviously were.

The battles didn’t end with Scipio’s victory, though. Much ink, if not blood, has been spilled in furious arguments between historians over the precise route that Hannibal took across the Alps. The answer makes not a blind bit of difference to the historical outcome, but there’s clearly something about that image of elephants on snowy peaks that makes experts care deeply about where exactly they went.

An international team of scientists now thinks the puzzle is largely solved. Its leader, geomorphologist Bill Mahaney of York University in Toronto, began pondering the question almost two decades ago by looking at geographical and environmental references in the classical texts. He and his colleagues have just revealed surprising new evidence supporting their claim to have uncovered Hannibal’s path.

The three Punic wars were a struggle for dominance of the Mediterranean region by the two great trading and military powers of the third and second centuries BC: Carthage and Rome. Carthage, a former Phoenician city-state in present-day Tunis, had an empire extending over most of the north African coast as well as the southern tip of Iberia. Rome was then still a republic, and the two states were locked in a power struggle apt to flare into open war, until the Romans annihilated Carthage in 146BC.

Hannibal, son of general Hamilcar who led troops in the first Punic war, gave Carthage its most glorious hour. He is ranked alongside Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and his nemesis Scipio as one of the greatest military strategists of the ancient world, and his alpine crossing plays a big part in that reputation. Most of what we know about it comes from the accounts given by the Roman writers Polybius (c200-118BC) and Livy (59BC-AD17). They make it sound truly harrowing.

As the Carthaginian army ascended from the Rhône valley in Gaul, they were harassed and attacked by mountain tribes who, knowing the territory, set ambushes, dropped boulders and generally wrought havoc. During the descent the Carthaginians were mostly unmolested, but now the mountains themselves threatened mortal danger. The Alps are steeper on the Italian side, and the path is narrow, hemmed in by precipices.

“Because of the snow and of the dangers of his route [Hannibal] lost nearly as many men as he had done on the ascent,” wrote Polybius. “Since neither the men nor the animals could be sure of their footing on account of the snow, any who stepped wide of the path or stumbled, overbalanced and fell down the precipices.”

At length they reached a spot where the path suddenly seemed impassable, as Livy describes it: “A narrow cliff falling away so sheer that even a light-armed soldier could hardly have got down it by feeling his way and clinging to such bushes and stumps as presented themselves.”

“The track was too narrow for the elephants or even the pack animals to pass,” writes Polybius. “At this point the soldiers once more lost their nerve and came close to despair.”

Hannibal tried a detour on the terrifying slopes to the side of the path, but the snow and mud were too slippery. So instead he set his troops to construct a road from the rubble, and after backbreaking labour he got the men, horses and mules down the slope and below the snowline. The elephants were another matter – it took three days to make a road wide enough. Finally, says Polybius, Hannibal “succeeded in getting his elephants across, but the animals were in a miserable condition from hunger”.

Where exactly Hannibal crossed the Alps was a point of contention even in the days of Polybius and Livy. Nineteenth-century historians argued about it, and even Napoleon weighed in. The controversy was still raging a hundred years later. Some authorities proposed a northerly path, past present-day Grenoble and through two passes over 2,000 metres high. Others argued for a southerly course across the Col de la Traversette – the highest road, reaching 3,000m above sea level. Or might the route have been some combination of the two, starting in the north, then weaving south and north again?

Victor Mature and Rita Gam in the 1959 film Hannibal. Photograph: Alamy
Victor Mature and Rita Gam in the 1959 film Hannibal. Photograph: Alamy

The southern route was advocated in the 1950s-60s by Sir Gavin de Beer, director of the British Museum (natural history), who published no fewer than five books on the subject. He combed the classical texts and tried to tie them in to geographical evidence – for example, identifying Hannibal’s river crossings from the timings of floods. “All of us more or less follow de Beer’s footprint,” says Mahaney.

For Mahaney, it began as a hobby and become a labour of love. “I’ve read classical history since my ordeal getting through four years of Latin in high school,” he says. “I can still see my old Latin teacher pointing his long stick at me.”

He went looking for clues in the landscapes. Both Polybius and Livy mention that the impasse faced by Hannibal was created by fallen rocks. Polybius, who got his information firsthand by interviewing some of the survivors from Hannibal’s army, describes the rockfall in detail, saying that it consisted of two landslides: a recent one on top of older debris. In 2004 Mahaney found from field trips and aerial and satellite photography that, of the various passes along the proposed routes, only the Col de Traversette had enough large rockfalls above the snowline to account for such an obstruction.

There’s an old, steep track of rubble leading out of this pass – which might conceivably be based on the very one made by Hannibal’s engineers. What’s more, in 2010 Mahaney and co-workers found a two-layer rockfall in the pass that seemed a good match for that which Polybius mentioned. “No such deposit exists on the lee side of any of the other cols,” he says.

He suspects Hannibal did not intend to come this way, but was forced to avoid the lower cols to the north because of the hordes of Gauls massing there. “They were every bit Hannibal’s equal, and no doubt hungry to loot his baggage train,” Mahaney says.

The rockfall evidence was pretty suggestive. But could Mahaney and his team of geologists and biologists find anything more definitive? Since 2011 they’ve been looking in a peaty bog 2,580m up in the mountains, just below of the Col de la Traversette. It’s one of the few places where Hannibal’s army could have rested after crossing the col, being the only place in the vicinity with rich soil to support the vegetation needed for grazing horses and mules.

The researchers rolled up their sleeves and dug into the mire. What they found was mud. And more mud. Not very informative, you might think. But mud can encode secrets. Taking an army of tens of thousands, with horses and elephants, over the Alps would have left one heck of a mess. More than two millennia later, Mahaney might have found it.

The peaty material is mostly matted with decomposed plant fibres. But at a depth of about 40cm this carbon-based material becomes much more disturbed and compacted, being mixed up with finer-grained soil. This structure suggests that the bog became churned up when the layer was formed. That’s not seen in any other soils from alpine bogs, and isn’t easily explained by any natural phenomenon such as grazing sheep or the action of frost. But it’s just what you’d expect to see if an army with horses and elephants passed by – rather like the aftermath of a bad year at the Glastonbury festival. This soil can be radiocarbon-dated – and the age comes out almost spookily close to the date of 218BC attested by historical records as the time of Hannibal’s crossing.

3544The researchers then took samples of this disturbed mud back to the lab, where they used chemical techniques to identify some of its organic molecules. These included substances found in horse dung and the faeces of other ruminants. There’s some of this stuff throughout the mire mud, but significantly more in the churned-up layer.

What’s more, this section also contained high levels of DNA found in a type of bacteria called clostridia, which are very common in the gut of horses (and humans). In other words, the layer of disturbed mud is full of crap (perhaps not so different from Glastonbury either). Aside from a passing army, it’s not easy to see where it might have come from – not many mammals live up here, except for a few sheep and some hardy marmots.

That’s not all. Microbiologists collaborating with the team think they might have found a distinctive horse tapeworm egg in the samples. “There is even the possibility of finding an elephant tapeworm egg,” says Mahaney’s long-term collaborator, microbiologist Chris Allen of Queen’s University Belfast. “This would really be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.” It’s just a shame, he adds, that “the pot of gold is actually a layer of horse manure”. Evidence of elephants at the site would surely be a smoking gun, since you don’t find many of them wandering wild in the Alps.

Meanwhile, Mahaney hopes, if he can find the funding, to mount a radar survey of the entire mire and other mires nearby to search for items dropped by the passing army. “My sniffer tells me some will turn up,” he says – “coins, belt buckles, sabres, you name it.”

Unless they do, other experts may reserve judgment. Patrick Hunt, an archaeologist who leads the Stanford Alpine Archaeology Project, which has been investigating Hannibal’s route since 1994, says that the answer to the puzzle “remains hauntingly elusive”. It’s all too easy, he says, for fellow experts to adduce evidence for their favoured route – his team argues for a more northerly path – but until the same methods and rigour are brought to bear on all the alternatives, none can be ruled out. All the same, he adds, Mahaney is one of the best geo-archaeologists working on the question. “He continues to be a trailblazer in the field,” says Hunt, “and I’d love to collaborate with him, because he’s asking excellent questions.”

If Mahaney can secure firm evidence – such as chemical or microbial fingerprints of elephant faeces – it would be the culmination of a personal quest. “The Hannibal enigma appealed to me for the sheer effort of getting the army across the mountains,” he says. “I have been in the field for long times with 100 people, and I can tell you it can be pandemonium. How Hannibal managed to get thousands of men, horses and mules, and 37 elephants over the Alps is one magnificent feat.”

by Philip Ball

Source: The Guardian

Margate? No, artist JMW Turner liked the real Deal

ARTIST JMW Turner is well known for his connection to the seaside town Margate, where a contemporary art gallery has been named after him.

Romanticist painter JMW Turner and actor Timothy Spall, who portrayed him in 2014
Romanticist painter JMW Turner and actor Timothy Spall, who portrayed him in 2014

However, it has now emerged that he may actually have preferred Deal, another seaside town 25 miles south.

A recently unearthed medical record has shed new light on the artist’s secret life away from Margate, a time he spent living anonymously and where he painted three major works.

Director Mike Leigh’s biographical film Mr Turner, which focused on the last 25 years of the acclaimed painter’s life, showed actor Timothy Spall as the artist living in Margate with widow Sophia Booth, who became his lover.

However, Turner, who died in 1851 aged 76, was actually a deeply secretive man. So when the Kent seaside town became a popular retreat for Londoners he persuaded Mrs Booth to move away with him to Deal.

Deal In A Storm highlights Turner's connection to the seaside town
Deal In A Storm highlights Turner’s connection to the seaside town

However, Turner, who died in 1851 aged 76, was actually a deeply secretive man. So when the Kent seaside town became a popular retreat for Londoners he persuaded Mrs Booth to move away with him to Deal.

They bought an 18th century two-storey property in Beach Street, with an attic and direct views of the English Channel and Goodwin Sands.

While there, Turner found himself able to walk around the town in peace as an anonymous resident and painted three major works, Sailing Boat Off Deal, Off Deal and Deal In A Storm.

Their house in Beach Street may also have featured in Turner’s notebooks, now held by the Tate Gallery.

Several pages show sketches and detailed drawings for room changes.

An impression of Turner in his older age
An impression of Turner in his older age

The fresh evidence of Turner’s life in Deal comes from a medical record which shows Dr David Price from Margate making 10 visits to Deal in 1848 to treat the artist for cholera.

For the past 30 years the house in Beach Street has been owned by Graham and Shirley Stiles, who run an 18th century pub in the same road along with their son James.

“I was a little taken back by the news. We knew Turner visited Deal often, but not that he owned my house,” said Mr Stiles.

Dr Selby Whittingham, secretary of The Independent Turner Society, said: “These are interesting new discoveries. For too long Turner’s connection with Deal has been down played.”

The Mayor of Deal, Cllr Adrian Friend, added: “This is fantastic news. I hope Turner was happy here.”

by Mike Gunnill

Source: Express


When a Painting becomes Poetry

A blog is a hobby; a blog is a notebook; a blog is a forum; a blog is a piece of art. A blog is unpaid, and so can rewrite our idea of what a journal is, what publication is. It reminds us that, in the age of culturecrat jargon such as “viability” and “private-public partnerships,” we can give away art entirely for free and that art can infiltrate a larger culture and therefore be worth something all on its own.

Here’s a blog I like: It’s called “Sunrise With Sea Monsters,” and it’s a project of the Canadian poet and editor Paul Vermeersch (who is also a colleague of mine in the small-press publishing trenches). It is a poetry journal: He asks poets to contribute poems whose only constraint is that they be titled Sunrise With Sea Monsters. This is the name of a rather odd 1845 painting by J.M.W. Turner, currently on display as part of a Turner show at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

The painting (which usually resides at the Tate in London) is unusual for Turner in that it is fantastical: It is a blurry yellowy-brown seascape with a vague, threatening, monstrous shape looming in its centre. The central form could be made up of two fish, but together they seem to form the sketch of a face with large eyes. Nothing in this scene – neither sea nor sky nor animal – has a clear outline. It is almost abstract and so an exemplar of Turner’s daring formlessness.

Sunrise with Sea Monsters is an 1845 painting by J.M.W. Turner, currently on display as part of a Turner show at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Sunrise with Sea Monsters is an 1845 painting by J.M.W. Turner, currently on display as part of a Turner show at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

The poets eagerly agree to play the game, and Vermeersch has amassed nine of these exercises, all wildly different, and none referring specifically to the painting (aside from their titles). There is a lovely melancholy one from Stevie Howell (“It’s Spartan, to try & / fall asleep at dawn in / the bed of a man you / just met.”). There’s a dense one, both tactile and cerebral, from Jeramy Dodds. (“With a tall Tanqueray I watch the tornado footage: / aerials bent to mantis elbows while the corn rows rose.”). There is a concrete poem by Conor McDonnell, a simple experiment with typography.

An ekphrastic poem is one that describes a work of visual art, real or fictional. But these are not, Vermeersch insists, ekphrastic. They merely share the same title as the painting. The title – perhaps its words alone – it’s a stepping-off point for a journey elsewhere.

Neither are they occasional poems (poems written for an event or occasion). Vermeersch chose this painting not because it happens to be part of the blockbuster Turner show, but because he always liked it. He had done the same a few years before with another painting, They Will Take My Island, by Arshile Gorky, which generated another series of fascinating and tangentially related poems, including a powerful cry of sympathy by Jonathan Bennett about a child with Asperger’s. (“He is larval. At one with his beloved insects, / murmuring, worrying about F3 tornadoes.”)

Poets seem to love these challenges. They are almost like a parlour game, a game of association: You have these words to work with, go. This is the challenge faced by the improv comedian.

But, indeed, all artists need exercises in order to get them going. One’s best work can come from an exercise or a formal constraint. Why is this? Is life itself not enough to inspire? Why do we need, sometimes, a trigger for a creative flight?

The most postmodern of theorists might even say that there is no such thing as inspiration from life: There is only other art. In other words, one makes art because one has seen art and wants to participate in it, to play the game, not because one has seen a sea monster. That is a bit extreme. But, in a sense, all art is about other art, if only in that it cannot help but refer to art that has preceded it. If it is a poem, it echoes all other poems that use the same language; if it is a painting, it exists in a continuum of paintings with the same colours or themes. Not convinced? Note how many artists preface descriptions of their work with the phrase, “It’s an exercise in …” The words that follow could be anything – line, colour, silence, changing scales, transgression – but the idea of the exercise is constant. (Evelyn Waugh, for example: “I regard writing not as investigation of character, but as an exercise in the use of language, and with this I am obsessed.”)

What is an exercise? It is at once practice, workout and game. In art, the rehearsal room and the stage are often the same space.

by Russell Smith

Source: The Globe and Mail


JMW Turner, art master and polemicist

As a Tate Britain exhibition shows, the artist’s later work offered a sharply political criticism of industrial society

JMW Turner Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus exhibited 1839 Oil paint on canvas support: 914 x 1219 mm frame: 1230 x 1530 x 140 mm painting Tate. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
JMW Turner Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus exhibited 1839 Oil paint on canvas support: 914 x 1219 mm frame: 1230 x 1530 x 140 mm painting Tate. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

For many art historians, the last years of JMW Turner’s life have sometimes looked like a let-down. It’s not hard to see why: in contrast to the string of triumphs that defined his early career, his old age was dominated by pain and disappointment. After turning 60 in 1835, his health began to fail. Weakened by influenza, robbed of his teeth and tormented by failing eyesight, he became, in his own words, “an invalid and a sufferer”.

Doggedly, he kept working, but he increasingly found himself alienated from public taste. Although he continued to exhibit at the Royal Academy – of which he had been a fellow since 1802 – his art was scorned by the critics. With the exception of John Ruskin, almost all of them looked down on his style. In 1836, his works were derided as “childish” by Blackwood’s Magazine, and in 1842, one visitor dismissed Snow Storm – Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth as all “soapsuds and whitewash”.

Tate Britain’s exhibition “Late Turner – Painting Set Free”, however, casts these years in a completely different light and shows just how wrong Turner’s critics were. Covering the period between 1835 and his death in 1851, the paintings are a testament to the remarkable originality of his declining years, and demonstrate that – despite the harsh judgments of his contemporaries – some of his finest works actually belong to his dotage.

Far from having been hampered by his failing eyesight, these works show that Turner succeeded in turning it to his advantage, anticipating the Impressionists by decades. Applying successive layers of translucent colour, he filled his canvases with a rich, hazy light, while using a restricted tonal range to fill his works with a rare poignancy and power.

Their vibrancy is hard to ignore. Based on sketches made during his travels in France, Switzerland and Italy in this period, pieces such as Fishermen on the Lagoon, Moonlight (1840) have an almost dream-like quality that elevates them into the realm of pure, unalloyed emotion.

But what is striking about the works in this exhibition is not their technical originality, but their highly political and often sharply polemical tone. Like many other Romantic painters of the day, Turner had recognised the role that art could play in social and political change; but it was only in his old age that he began to explore the potential for artistic commentary in full.

Turner – like his younger contemporary Charles Dickens – was a sharp critic of the industrial and commercial change sweeping mid-19th-century Britain. Casting a locomotive as a dark, sinister beast carving a pitiless path through the landscape in Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844), he drew attention to the threat posed to the natural beauty of the English countryside by the industrial revolution; while in The Slave Ship (1840), he depicted the appalling human cost of the illegal trade in slaves.

Turner’s most powerful – and subtle – attacks were, however, directed at the changes sweeping the political world. Although the Tate’s curators omit to mention the fact, the last 16 years of his life coincided with a period of tremendous upheaval across Europe. But while many of his fellow artists were caught up in the revolutionary ferment of the day, Turner was profoundly at odds with the fervour gripping Europe. In his mind, a cancer was eating away at the heart of political life, and Britain – along with most of the continent – was going to the dogs.

Turner chose to explore this theme of moral and political decline through the history of ancient Rome. Classical historians had attributed Rome’s fall not to military defeat or barbarian invasion, but to the loss of virtue. Seduced by wealth and luxury, the Romans had, they believed, abandoned their commitment to duty and public service, and let the state rot from within. It was this narrative that Turner examined in paintings such as Regulus (1828; reworked 1837). In this dramatic work, the visual rhetoric of light and darkness is brought to bear on Regulus’s willingness to accept blindness and death so that his country would continue its struggle against Carthage, and illustrates the common Roman belief that it was after Carthage’s final defeat that Rome’s moral fibre began to decline.

The relevance that this had for Turner’s own times was plain to see. Although Britain and her European neighbours were reaching the peak of their imperial and commercial prowess by the time of Turner’s death, they were losing their moral fibre.

No longer motivated by duty and public service, both governments and revolutionaries were adrift on a sea of luxury and self-indulgence. And, as Rome’s history showed, only disaster could follow.

There is, indeed, a sense that in The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th October 1834 (1835), Turner sought to show that the end had already begun.

It is this profoundly political dimension to Turner’s later works that makes Tate Britain’s exhibition especially welcome. While it succeeds in rehabilitating the reputation of the artist’s final works, it also invites us to apply the message of his paintings to our own times. Like the aged Turner, we are surrounded by political upheavals. Civil wars rage in Ukraine and Syria, northern Iraq is in the grip of conflict, and in our own country, domestic troubles abound. But, as Turner suggested of his own age, what is lacking is a morality of politics.

If this exhibition shows anything, it shows that the time has come for a rebirth of the civic virtues of old before it is too late. It is only telling that it takes an artist scorned in his own times – rather than a politician in ours – to show us this.

Alexander Lee’s latest book, ‘The Ugly Renaissance: Sex, Disease and Excess in an Age of Beauty’, is published by Arrow

by Alexander Lee

Source: The Telegraph


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