Friday, August 14, 2015

“J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free”

Last fall, we had the opportunity to see an exhibition of paintings by J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), considered one of the best English painters ever. The exhibition, “Late Turner: Painting Set Free,” was at the Tate Britain, which has a rather large collection of Turner paintings – the result of a bequest by Turner to the British nation. From London, the exhibition traveled to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the deYoung Museum in San Francisco.

We wandered through the exhibition galleries, still fighting off jet lag and not helped one bit by the rather low lighting. The paintings were from Turner’s final years, covering roughly 1835 to his death in 1851. What struck me was how contemporary many of the paintings seemed, and one could even view some of the paintings as anticipating Impressionism.

Except they don’t. In the book that accompanied the exhibition, J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free, the editors and authors argue for understanding Turner in his own time, his final years coinciding with the early years of the Victorian period. His paintings addressed the audience of his time.

Turner in middle age
Evidence for that, for example, is the painting pictured at top. Entitled “The Fighting Temeraire,” it was painted in 1839 and depicts the retirement of a magnificent sailing ship, being led to its place in the scrap yard. The age of sail was passing; the age of steam had arrived. And no painting captured the transition better than “The Fighting Temeraire,” one of Turner’s most popular works. The audience of 1839 understood exactly the point Turner was making int hat painting, whereas today, without any of the background, we might simply see a sailing ship being moved by a tug boat.

The book, edited by David Blayney Brown, Amy Concannon and Sam Smiles, is filled with information like that. And it’s information in a readable, accessible style, and not what one might expect from an exhibition book. It’s divided into two sections: five relatively short essays covering large topics, and the exhibition catalogue, divided into seven sections covering the paintings, watercolors and other items in the exhibition.

The five general essays cover Turner in his own time and later; the final years of his life; an interpretation of what was happening in his later works; the watercolors he produced during the last years of his life; and his materials and technique.

The Blue Rigi, Sunrise (1842)
At the Tate exhibition, I enjoyed the watercolors as much as the oil paintings. In fact, the work I kept coming back to was a watercolor, “The Blue Rigi,” a mountain on Lake Geneva (and I’ve posted it several times here; I like it so much I’m posting it again).

The catalog section of the book provides extensive information on each work in the exhibition, and it was only reading the book that I discovered that quite a few of the works shown at the Tate in London did not travel to the exhibitions in California.

J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free is a fine work, filled with information about and understanding of the artist, and a book that easily stands on its own. Recently rereading it, however, did take me back a year to that exhibition at the Tate.


My review of Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Turner:

My review of James Wilson’s The Dark Clue, a mystery based on the life of Turner

If you’re interested in Turner, his paintings, and particularly his later years, the movie Mr. Turner was released in 2014, with actor Timothy Spall wonderfully playing the title character.

1 comment:

Jody Lee Collins said...

I love Turner's work. Thank you for this reminder; I want to go find that film!