Turner: painter of light and extreme weather & sea in his late years

Turner Whistler Monet at Tate Britain in 2005 may well have been the first exhibition I saw when I came to live in London – it was also shown in Paris at Grand Palais. I remember it fondly. And 9+ years later, Tate Britain hosts another Turner show (1775-1851), focusing on his work in the last 16 years of his life, between 1835 and his death in 1851.

Entering the first room, I pondered on the artist – a contemporary of Constable but not to be categorised as a mere English landscape painter, in my view. Turner has more to offer: he may have been a precursor to Impressionism and could have influenced Boudin for his skies (Turner was fond of Margate’s “finest skies in Europe”). He is a painter of light and atmosphere, with white and pale yellow and blue as key colours. 19th c. art critic John Ruskin was a champion of J M W Turner and actively defended Turner against criticism. Turner’s pictures were criticised for being abstractions of aerial perspective and not proper representations of nature.

The key strength of the current Tate Britain exhibition is that it shows Turner not only as the painter of light, but also of extreme weather and sea, despite his age. The most striking examples are Turner’s square paintings. Controversial at the time, they are displayed together in a dedicated theatrical room. According to Tate Curator of British Art, David Blayney Brown, Turner reinterpreted historical subjects with modern subjects, adding the modernity of steam cars, ships and trains.

Aged 60, Turner undertook a very ambitious tour of Continental Europe, braving difficult transport, stomach and breathing problems. He spent only three weeks in Venice in total during his life but produced many artworks of the City of the Doges. If his depictions of Venice were to be compared to Canaletto and Guardi’s, their atmospheric effects would make them closer to Guardi’s.

Tate Britain ‘The EY Exhibition: Late Turner – Painting Set Free’ is a beautiful show, as the museum complemented its rich permanent collection of Turner’s with a few loans. I only regret the scenography of Tate exhibition: the theatrical room of the square paintings works well but the light blue and pale yellow walls, reminiscent of Turner’s own colours, don’t work and make some of Turner’s paintings look faded. The exhibition runs until 25 January 2015 at Tate Britain, until 24 May 2015 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, and from 20 June to 20 September 2015 at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. 

20141109-103931.jpg Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth

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