Friday, November 27, 2009

Art Review : Turner and the Masters - Tate Britain (September 2009 - January 2010)

JMW Turner was a combative character, who frequently set himself up in comparison to both contemporary artists and established Great Masters. He famously demanded in his will that two of his best works were to be given to the new National Gallery, on the proviso that they were permanently hung between two paintings by his great predecessor as an interpreter of landscapes, the Frenchman Claude Lorraine. This splendidly instructive exhibition looks at how Turner learnt from, and attempted to supersede, his illustrious forebears.

The comparisons with Claude are direct, and brilliantly illustrated in the exhibition. Turner knew Claude’s “Landscape with Jacob, Laban and his Daughters” from the collection of his patron, the Earl of Egremont. In protest at the conservative policies of the British Institution who encouraged artists to model themselves directly on the painters of the past, Turner submitted “Appulia in Search of Appulus Learns from the Swain the Cause of his Metamorphosis”, which copied the Claude almost exactly except for the central characters, who point to a shepherd who was turned into a tree for copying the dancing of the nymphs of Pan. Untalented mimicry has its pitfalls.

Turner saw “Seaport at Sunset” (left) by Claude in the Louvre in 1821. In 1828 in Rome, he fashioned his response, “Regulus” (right), which stuck closely to the mirror image of Claude’s composition but which transformed the central narrative. Regulus was a captured Roman General who had his eyelids removed and then pointed at the sun. Turner replaces Claude’s warm glow of sunset with a blaze of brilliant yellow light which dazzles all who gaze at it. The genteel seaport has been transformed into a place of searing drama.

Likewise, Turner engaged directly with Dutch masters of the seascape such as Jacob van Ruisdael and Jan van de Velde. In another brilliant pendant, Turner transforms Van de Velde’s “A Rising Gale”, a clear and precise depiction of a storm-tossed boat, into “Dutch Boats in a Gale: Fishermen Endeavouring to Put their Fish on Board”. The composition is similar, but Turner’s looser brushwork and delicate highlights of the breaking waves give the painting a much greater sense of movement.

However, it is equally illuminating to look at examples where Turner tried and failed to emulate his great predecessors. Titian may be considered a natural point of departure, as his use of colour and his late brushwork have many similarities with Turner. Yet when one looks at Venus and Adonis, whose head is turned away from the viewer and whose shoulder is obscuring the face of Venus, one can only wonder if there is a more poorly composed painting in the canon. Similarly, an attempt to paint the Holy Family offers a vision of an oversized baby somehow suspended in mid-air. In fact, one has to conclude that Turner is a poor figurative painter. For me, his one such success is Jessica, peering out of her Venetian window – a painting which was pilloried for its overuse of yellow when it was first produced.

Turner’s relationship with his contemporary David Wilkie is illustrative. Wilkie’s painting “Village Politicians” had been the success of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1806. This piece was a directly based on genre pieces by Dutch artists of the late 17th Century such as David Teniers the Younger. Turner’s immediate instinct was to try to do better, and in 1807 he presented “A Country Blacksmith disputing upon the Price of Iron, and the Price Charged to the Butcher for shoeing his Poney” at the Summer Exhibition. Yet despite its fine execution, the painting is a failure. The charm of Wilkie - and of Teniers - is in the detail, in the personalities represented and in the incidental vignettes scattered throughout their pieces. Turner’s blacksmith needs the overlong title to explain the topic under discussion, and none of the people are recognisable as characters. Wilkie exhibited “The Blind Fiddler” the same year, where every character from the dull-eyed nursing mother to the expansive man clicking his fingers to amuse the child has a reality to them which Turner lacked. Wilkie won this contest hands down.

This fine exhibition brings its paintings together with intelligence and clarity, setting out a compelling story of how Turner defined himself in relation to others; yet ultimately Turner’s distinct vision is very much his own. By examining the similarities between Turner and other artists, the ultimate revelation is the extent to which Turner’s later vision of light and haze and water was actually a transformation from inside out of the gentle landscapes of Claude. It is to him that he constantly returns, to his classical forms and elegant compositions, even if they are but shadows in a miasma of blinding light. His final exhibited works in 1850 once again echo, however indistinctly, the format of Claude’s seaport works.

Turner wasn’t being arrogant when he wrote his will, he was acknowledging a debt.

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