Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Late Turner at the Tate

Another Turner exhibition as rolled into London, the third in five years after the NMM's Turner and the Sea and the Tate's Turner and the Masters. Is there really more that can be learnt about this artist?

The Late Turner: Painting set free exhibition covers J. M. W. Turner's work when he was 60 or over, and he continued to create art at a prolific rate during what his time would have considered his declining years.

Seascapes and landscapes mostly, with some of his greatest pictures, such as "Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway" (above), a work that connects one of Britain's greatest artists with one of its greatest engineers - Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who was the mind behind the railway and in particular this bridge at Maidenhead over the Thames.

It's a great example of the swirling clouds and an impressionist abstraction that became a trademark of his later years. Some even suggest it pre-dated 20th century symbolic artists such as Cy Twombly.

But where did this style come from? Could it have been more than artistic genius - could it have been a symptom of Turner's physical decline?

On display were his glasses, for his eye sight was poor, and these could be a clue as it has been suggested that "Turner, suffering from early, slight colour-blindness and later cataracts, was painting exactly what he saw".

But there were later works, such as watercolours of the mountains around Lake Lucerne, that did show sharp lines and clearly distinguishable features.

Some of the most abstract works had another simpler explanation - they were not finished. There is described as a sea monster, but the title was given to that work by the National Gallery and it was never completed by Turner. In his Whaler works his ships were simple lines together with off-white paint, so that their sails merged into the background clouds. It wouldn't have required much work to change that sea monster into a fishing boat - if he had time.

For example have a look at this oil, "Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus! Another Fish!":

The lack of time could be another explanation, for Turner seemed driven to create as much as possible while he still could. Where other artists would relax in what we'd call his retirement, admiring the scene as they drifted down the Grand Canal in Venice, Turner was forever sketching, filling his notebooks (several on display) with scene after scene.

Maybe with the sands of time shortening and his energies weakening he felt he could spend less time on each canvas, and so the technique become more economical, avoiding time consuming detail.

Yet despite his failing health, eye-sight issues and limited time his weakest work would blow any of the contenders in 2014's disappointing Turner Prize straight out of the water.

There was clearly so much creativity and ideas in Turner's work that the answer to the initial question is a resounding yes: there is more to discover in this astonishingly prolific artist.

Definitely worth a visit if you are in London.

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