One difficulty with charting an artist’s development in an exhibition is that it often doesn’t really get good until the end. I found it hard to motivate myself to see something exciting in a wall of five similar landscapes through Turner’s earlier periods. As Britain’s ‘most acclaimed artist,’ however, it is worth wading through the less enjoyable works to reach the final room.
Gilt frames and provincial subject matter obscure appreciation of Turner for what he was, a master of light. This celebration of light can be appreciated immediately on entering the exhibition. His work was thought to pre-empt Impressionism, unsurprising given his skill representing light and that he took to painting outside in his landscapes, according to the Impressionist fashion.
Turner’s late, atmospheric works are captivating. Here he seems to portray the Sublime more effectively than his earlier works, which sought to transpose it directly from nature. It was for these works, with their ‘unfinished’ appearance, that Turner was most thoroughly lambasted.
During his lifetime Turner was also often criticised for his use of colour. The heightened blues and reds are sometimes jarring in his yellow-tinged landscapes, yet his experimentation did lay the seeds for later, interesting results.
The curators have taken some pleasure throughout in weaving into the exhibition the criticism Turner received during his career. Two portraits begin the exhibition: beside a flattering, likely commissioned, portrait of the artist as a young man, is a later portrait by Count Alfred D’Orsay from 1851, that shows a rotund and very short man, displaying the ‘uncouth’ manners hinted at. I would have liked to see more of the insults included in the wall text, but one tour guide did politely offer that he was commonly known as the ‘yellow dwarf,’ proving critics were as creative with insults then as now.
The later Waves breaking on a Lee shore, Margate, c.1840 is a thrashing seascape. Turner’s restraint and masterful manipulation of the slightest detail hint at the foamy fringe of crashing waves. Turner moves beyond classical landscape painting to an almost unresolved, brusque aesthetic that seems to embody the violence of the natural elements he seeks to portray. With these works he achieves the movement and atmosphere prized by abstract artists more than a century later.
Just before the exit is the strangest work in the exhibition: War. The exile and the rock limpet, exhibited 1842. A comically giant Napoleon looms over a featureless landscape. A presumably distant redcoat nevertheless shares a reflection in the lake beside the pensive commander. This heightened work is likely a statement on the futility of war, by an artist who lived through the Napoleonic wars.
Reasons for the work’s inclusion can only be guessed at. The companion piece of a sea burial, however, is one of the best in the exhibition, and the work does highlight Turner’s mastery of landscape painting.
Despite the best efforts of the curators, a friend walked out of the exhibition with the thought, “There were a lot of ships”. It is an uphill battle attempting to present the masters in a new light, but worth the effort to see Turner’s development towards a new kind of landscape painting.
Turner From the Tate: The Making of a Master is showing at the National Gallery of Australia until 8 September.