Come the end of this year, London will have hosted three major exhibitions focusing on the late works of three highly significant artists — Rembrandt, Matisse and Turner — offering audiences and critics the opportunity to appreciate and reflect on some of the most radical, philosophical and mysterious art of its time.
Tate Britain’s new autumn exhibition focuses on the late work of Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), the great British painter hailed as a proto-modernist, a revolutionary figure who paved the way for the Impressionists and Abstract Expressionists. Some of his most audacious and admirable works were produced at this time in his life, and the exhibition includes some extremely rare works, including “Bamburgh Castle.”
Turner’s late works embody an idea that has gained increasing currency in the way we think about art: a “late style.” Of course artists didn’t consciously work in a late style: this is the construct of art historians. And Turner was not the kind of artist who turned back to earlier ages in his later years. Rather, he embraced Joshua Reynolds’ idea of the artist as a public figure, a valuable member of society who should justify his role through his artistic output. He was also influenced by tradition and saw himself as a craftsman, in the manner of the great painters who had preceded him, such as Titian and Reynolds.
Turner was, like Beethoven, an artist engaged with his time. He looked at contemporary events – the rapid industrialism of Britain and its impact on the landscape, political turbulence and international conflict, the building of the railways and the burning down of the Houses of Parliament — and he painted them. But he was no romantic bohemian, living on the margins of society: in his later years, he was still looking for patrons and was by this time very well known and financially comfortable.
Turner didn’t benefit from a “late style” critique in his lifetime — the term had not been coined then, and indeed John Ruskin, his greatest champion, held the view that the quality of an artist’s output was likely to tail off in his sunset years. In his late works Turner, always considered a maverick, baffled and appalled his audiences and commentators, who thought the paintings were “unfinished” or, at worse, a sign of mental illness; yet at the same time he was producing works such as “The Fighting Temeraire,” which was, and remains, one of his most popular paintings. To the modern eye, less concerned with ideas of permanence and perfection, these paintings represent a wonderful culmination of everything that had interested Turner throughout his life, and, just as in Beethoven’s late works, are exhilarating in their exceptional display of energy, creative vigor and inspiration. In Beethoven and Turner this is combined with the radical (for the time) forward pull of their personal artistic vision, which led to the creation of some of the most wondrous works in their entire output.
The exhibition at Tate Britain brings together some 150 works from the UK and abroad, and follows a largely chronological course, beginning in 1835, the year Turner turned 60 years old, and closing with his last show at the Royal Academy in 1850. The exhibition celebrates Turner’s late style and demonstrates that he remained keenly attuned to the world around him, from maritime industries to political upheaval. It challenges assumptions surrounding the idea of the “elderly” artist, and offers insights into his radical techniques, processes and materials during this productive time. Organized chronologically, each room focuses on a specific aspect of Turner’s late style, including his travels in Europe (Room 2: On the Wing), his interest in historical and mythological subjects and the literature of William Shakespeare (Room 3: Past and Present), his lifelong obsession with the sea (Room 5: ‘That Real Sea Feeling’), and his final years, including an exquisite portfolio of Swiss watercolors (“The Blue Rigi,” among them), which he offered to a select group of patrons. His radical square paintings are on display together for the first time ever, in recently restored frames: these paintings shocked and mystified his audiences with their innovative and audacious use of layout, materials and colors. To the modern observer they seem to crystallize everything we know and love about Turner’s work: the use of light and color and the swirling vortices of his larger-scale paintings have a limpid radiance and intensity in these works, most notably in “Peace – Burial at Sea” and “Light and Color (Goethe’s Theory).”
In his landscapes, both oils and watercolors, we see his fascination with light and water, in particular in the pictures of Venice, a city Turner admired for its unique atmosphere and beauty tinged with melancholy. His watercolors are finely wrought, some little more than a few economical brushstrokes, yet they display a keen eye for detail in their composition and use of figures and color.
The final works in the exhibition show Turner at his most radical, looking forward beyond the Impressionists even to the great Abstract-Expressionist artists of the 20th century (“Norham Castle, Sunrise”). Some of these works are sketches, others were unfinished, and many cannot be firmly dated, yet they reveal an artist still firmly intent on producing work that was inventive, exciting and exploratory.
In addition to the fine display of paintings, there are sketchbooks and letters, and even Turner’s spectacles which helped him finesse his watercolors. There is also some explanation of the special techniques he employed, including laying down four images on a single sheet which was later cut down and the use of special watercolor paper treated with animal glue which allowed him to work with his colours “wet-in-wet.” Highly recommended. (“Late Turner — Painting Set Free” goes on to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles from Feb. 24-May 24, 2015, and then to the de Young Museum in San Francisco from June 20-Sept. 20, 2015.)