“Painting Set Free” is a remarkable exhibit highlighting the late works of the great British romantic landscape and seascape painter, Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851). The outstanding works on canvas and paper display Turner’s oeuvre, beginning in 1835, when Turner was 60 years old, and ending with his last show at the Royal Academy in 1850, the year before his death.
The show began life in a larger version at the Tate Britain last year. Partially because of the brilliant film “Mr. Turner,” a close exploration of the life and work of the artist, written and directed by Mike Leigh, which I reviewed last year, I’m re-reviewing the current smaller version of the original show, which mounts 65 rather than 150 pieces.
But the current show doesn’t seem small at all. In fact, there is a lot to take in, as most of the works are emotionally powerful, as well as physically large. The installation is excellent; the walls are dark and the lighting is spot on, the better to show off the art, and there is plenty of room between the paintings. The exhibition is a great opportunity to better understand Turner’s works, since the audio tour and written wall labels are informative and clear. The audio tour also contains a music-only recording by Felix Mendelssohn (Songs Without Words, Book 6, opus 67, No. 1 in E flat major) to get viewers into the mood.
Known today as a pre-impressionist or proto-impressionist, Turner would likely be surprised by the sobriquet. He saw himself as a chronicler of current events as well as history, Greek myths and literature. He often paired two or three paintings together in order to contrast them. For example, “Ancient Rome: Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus. The Triumphal Palace of the Caesars Restored” (1837) is paired with “Modern Rome – Camp Vaccino” (1839), Turner’s imaginary view of a bucolic Rome. This oil on canvas, lent by the Getty Museum for viewing in California only, is in wonderful condition. It has never been varnished and has always remained under glass.
“Turner’s Bedroom at the Palazzo Guistinian (Hotel Europa), Venice” (ca. 1840), a small watercolor, is one of my favorites. The delicate blocks of pastel colors approach impressionism or abstraction, something a young Richard Diebenkorn or David Hockney might have painted. Turner’s Venetian paintings certainly capture the romantic vision of Venice, which one must squint very hard to see today.
J. M. W. Turner was born into a lower-class background; his father worked as a butcher, while his mentally unstable mother was committed to the London psychiatric facility known as Bedlam. At age 14, Turner was accepted into the Royal Academy of Art School in London, where Sir Joshua Reynolds chaired the admissions panel. Turner quickly joined the ranks of the admired and financially successful artists and remained in that high echelon for the rest of his life. A stereotypical starving artist Turner was not.
The reason that the show contains many studies, rather than only finished works, is because Turner’s agent showed the studies to prospective patrons, who could buy the unseen finished painting based on the sketch. Since Turner bequeathed to the Tate all the paintings in his studio at the time of his death, it makes sense that his studio contained many of these studies.
One of the more fascinating aspects of the film “Mr. Turner” is the way in which it contrasts Turner‘s unruly and rough personality with the subtlety and delicacy of his paintings. In the film, we watch the larger-than-life, boisterous and crude artist (played by Timothy Spall) travel through England, making quick pencil sketches that he later transforms into oils, watercolors and prints of natural phenomena — landscapes, seascapes, fires and storms — that capture sky, light and water. Turner works feverishly, using his spit and stabbing his fingers on the canvas, as he mixes colors greedily to find the perfect effect. Though the film is fictionalized, it is hard for me to separate my image of the artist as portrayed in the film from the exhibit at the de Young Museum.
Note: This version of the Turner show will also be on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, from Oct. 31, 2015 through January 31, 2016. The Legion of Honor Museum, San Francisco, sister museum to the de Young, will be exhibiting “Luminous Worlds: British Works on Paper, 1760–1900” including some by Turner, from July 11 – Nov. 29, 2015.
“Mr. Turner” is showing at selected theaters and is available on DVD.
Emily S. Mendel
© Emily S. Mendel 2015 All Rights Reserved