What’s On in London: Turner Exhibition at Tate Britain – by Pat Levy
When J M W Turner died he bequeathed a huge number of paintings and sketches to the British state, stipulating that the works be housed in a specially built gallery and that the entire bequest be kept together. That didn’t happen (when do governments ever fulfil their obligations?), Turner went out of fashion, the paintings were scattered around existing galleries and lots of them spent years in the basement of the National Gallery.
Perhaps though Turner didn’t so much go out of fashion as fashion couldn’t keep up with him. The name of the wonderful Turner exhibition currently running at Tate Britain (until 25 January) is Painting Set Free and when you compare the stuff that Turner was producing with the work of his contemporaries you can see why paintings such as Sunrise with Sea Monsters scared the bejeesus out of the cultured classes who came to his exhibitions hoping to pick up a nice figurative oil painting to hang over their fireplace.
The paintings in this exhibition were all created from 1835, over the last sixteen years of his life when he was in his sixties and seventies. During that time he was an avid traveller around Europe, had a flourishing business in commissions and exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy. The title of the Tate exhibition suggests his transition from traditional mimetic landscapes to the roiling, nearly abstract paintings of these last years. The suggestion is that this is Turner’s gift to art – forging the transition to abstract expressionism. Some more cynical critics have hinted that it was his increasing senility, an inability to produce delicate brushwork and failing eyesight which lay behind the swirling vortices and huge splashes of colour which dominate this exhibition. Whatever the cause or intention, they are amazing. Fun can be had looking at the titles and working out what an earth the great whorls and shapes have to do with them. One painting Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) –The morning after the deluge – Moses writing the Book of Genesis shows a great swirling mass with suggestions of figures. Gone are the horizon line, scenery or any sense of perspective. You are looking at the sun, perhaps as the elderly Turner sees it. The curling figure at the centre is, according to the Tate’s notes, the brazen snake raised by Moses in the desert in order to cure plagues and represents Christ’s’ redemption of Man – to which I say, ‘huh?’. It’s a glorious painting which when put on sale in 1843, failed to sell. It wouldn’t have matched the florid Victorian furniture at all.
Everyone knows the seascapes – great ships foundering in storms, a sea monster almost materialising in furious waves, whaling ships trapped in ice in a misty landscape, the houses of parliament burning (those were the days!), but it is the presentation of figures that held my interest. In War, the exile and the Rock Limpet (1842) we see a beautifully drawn Napoleon, isolated and downcast in a swirling mass of sunset, clouds and water. The reds and broken-looking images suggest the carnage and futility war attributed to the tiny figure in the foreground. Next to it, Peace – Burial at Sea, (criticised at its first exhibition for being unfinished) stands in contrast, a series of calm blues forming a background to the black of the sails. A writer for the Times of 6 May 1842 suggested that the ship looked more like a ‘burnt and blackened fish kettle’.
It’s a grand exhibition, coinciding nicely with Mike Leigh’s film Mr Turner. One piece of advice though: visit on a weekday morning and avoid the weekends like the plague that Moses tried to cure. Saturdays and Sundays are too busy to have the space to stick your nose right in front of a detail or stand back for an overall view or even find a seat – crucial when the entrance charge and the size of the exhibition mean you’re inclined to stay there for as long as possible.
As a footnote, Turner’s father was a barber and he used to put his teenage son’s paintings in the window of his shop to sell for a few shillings. It’s entirely possible that a few have survived and are stuck in attics, just waiting for the lucky descendants to clear the place out and bring them to the antiques roadshow.
As another footnote, I spent a stunned evening at the Royal Festival Hall, watching a one-off public lecture and discussion with the philosopher Slavoj Žižek on the Myth of Western Liberty. Fortunately for me he was dumbing down what he had to say to suit the layman’s brain capacity. An enormous screen behind him gigantified every gesture and provided a speech-to-text service which was seriously necessary – the man talks so fast it’s a wonder he keeps up with himself. What stunned me most though was the audience. There wasn’t an empty seat in the house, the man’s entrance was greeted with a hooting roar worthy of a guest on Graham Norton, every tiny joke had people falling off their seats and hundreds of smartphones waved in the air recording the event. Weird.