Late Turner @ Tate Britain

Contemporaries thought Turner had gone mad. Even his biggest fan, art critic John Ruskin, wasn’t keen on the paintings from his last 5 years up till his death in 1851. However, we – 160 years later and after the Impressionists and so many other weird art movements, after Art has been delcared dead and risen from its death-bed so many times – we look back with nostalgia on the idyllic landscapes you can just about discern in many of his paintings and the simple yet endlessly surprising pleasures of oil paintings.

The main challenges to enjoying Turner’s art isn’t, then, the treatment, which is old hat for a 21st century viewer. It’s the opposite, it’s the over-familiarity of his paintings. His greatest hits like The Fighting Temeraire or Rain, Wind and Speed are very familiar from posters and the ‘Turner Affect’, the blurring of sunlight through fog or mist or steam or rain obliterating the line between sea or land and sky to create a great yellow-white fantasia, has been done thousands of ways since. He himself began its over-exposure by doing the same trick again and again in the paintings here.

J.M.W. Turner, Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway 1844. Copyright The National Gallery, London

J.M.W. Turner, Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway 1844. Copyright The National Gallery, London

And this is the other challenge – the sheer volume, the scale of Turner’s output. The audio guide explains that he left over 30,000 sketches in his sketchbooks, not counting all the watercolours and a huge number of preparatory and finished oil paintings.

He left everything to the nation and the collection eventually found its way to the museum which became Tate Britain. From one perspective, then, this wasn’t a very challenging exhibition to mount: the curators just had to move the paintings from the Clore Gallery to the Exhibition rooms. They then organised it by subject matter: travels scenes from Europe; historic and mythological subjects; sea and whaling etc. (The audioguide highlights the considerable effort which as in fact gone into curating the show, including the restoration of many pieces and the discovery of new sketches.)

The challenge to the viewer is trying to establish some rules of thumb to help you survive the bombardment of paintings, so many of which display the Turner Affect, but very few of which really gel or work. Why not? Why do the ones which work work?

Rule 1 – Forget almost everything with human figures in Turner was rubbish at painting people. Almost all the historical and mythological paintings by definition feature human figures. Without exception your eye goes to them, realises they are poorly defined with blobs for faces and wonky eyes, and the effect is ruined. Our 21st century culture is saturated with images of human beings and I’ve watched hundreds of hours of films of people moving, not to mention all the movies featuring CGI where the audience is invited to assess the realistic movement or not of the thousands of little human figures (Titanic, Lord of The Rings). Bringing this hypercritical awareness of every nuance of the human figure to bear on Turner’s history and myth paintings ruins them at a stroke.

Regulus, 1837, epitomises this. There’s the Turner Light Effect alright, but your eye is drawn to the figures at bottom right (and left) and they are poor and that undermines the work’s integrity.

JMW Turner, Regulus 1837. Tate. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

JMW Turner, Regulus 1837. Tate. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

The same could be said for:

Rule 2 – Only a small percentage of the oil paintings work Even dismissing everything with a human figure in it leaves hundreds and hundreds of landscapes, some of urban settings like Venice, others of mountains in the Alps etc, others of seascapes. An exhibition like this makes you realise quite quickly that a lot don’t work. Given such a large number to choose for I was looking for ones where the Affect is unblemished by imperfections and imbalances. For example, I don’t really like the famous Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway 1844 because I don’t like the finish of the engine, or the brick paling of the bridge, or the other, white bridge over to the left – the detailing of all of them seem to me imperfect. By contrast my favourite paintings were:

JMW Turner, Peace - Burial at Sea 1842. Tate. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

JMW Turner, Peace – Burial at Sea 1842. Tate. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Rule 3 – the sketches are better than the paintings Maybe my taste is against the enormous bombast of the paintings but, as with the Constable exhibition, I found the sketches had a free, uncontrived, fresh and sometimes quite magical impact. Whereas you could quite easily walk past vast oil canvases, rather ham-fisted portrayals of grand historical vistas which just don’t float my boat, I found myself lingering and coming back to re-view tiny 6-inch high sketches which captured a feeling and mood with breath-taking skill. There was a series of sketches taken of Mount Rigi at different times of day which were quite wonderful.

JMW Turner, The Blue Rigi 1841-2

JMW Turner, The Blue Rigi 1841-2

There are people in these sketches but he takes a completely different approach – instead of attempting complete depictions which fail and look clumsy – as in the historical paintings – Turner is content to hint at the human figure with silhouettes and slivers of paint. Compare the light and playful hints of figures in Boats off Margate pier with the melodramatic, overdone but unconvincing figures in Regulus.

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