The Power of Paint

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Exhibition Review: The EY Exhibition Late Turner: Painting Set Free

Turner turned 60 in 1835 and the paintings and watercolours he went on to produce are the subject of the exhibition at Tate Britain (running until January 2015). Work labelled as ‘late’ can carry a double-edged evaluation, pointing upwards to acclaim  ascent to new ground or downwards to indicate a decline into staleness. It can go either way: late Heidegger is radical, late Wordsworth is drearily conservative and if late Dylan comes into the equation the term’s uncertainty wobbles close to collapse. Tate Britain’s tag line for late Turner, Painting Set Free, makes clear the gallery’s pitch, indicating that we view these post-1835 works as a liberation from classical canons and traditional notions of art as merely pictorial representation. Turner, suggests the sub-text, was a modernist avant la lettre who prepared the way for Impressionism, anticipated the spirit of abstract art and educated our sensibilities towards receiving a non-mimetic notion of art. This has been a familiar way of viewing Turner for half a century now so there is nothing shockingly new in Tate Britain’s approach but what does distinguish this exhibition is the concentrated gathering in one space of so many works by Turner over a precise period of time. The result is a visual feast that takes narrative moments from myths, the bible and history and stirs in a heady blend of watery mists and hazy but vibrant colours to enact ethereal dramas of light and dark. The atmosphere of his paintings comes from light-drenched vistas that exist independently of whatever set of humans, nymphs, gods or goddesses happen to inhabit one portion of a canvas. Turner is not afraid to add touches of impasto while remaining loyal to his palette of airy blue, creamy to murky white, golden yellow, russet that mutates to scalding red and burnt orange.

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War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet, exhibited in the year, 1842, Napoleon’s ashes were returned to France.

Late Turner was relaxed about traditional rules of perspective but such audacity is just as manifest in his Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps which was exhibited thirty years earlier. Thunderously swirling skies, whirlpools of bad weather

and chromatic vortices — coming as painterly as possible to rendering some of those tumultuous scenes from the heart of King Lear – characterised Turner before the onset of his sixties but critics in the 1840s grew alarmed at what they saw as a growing formlessness in his paintings and more than one intended purchaser  cancelled a commission.  A traditionalist might well have reacted with shock to Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – The Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis given its disregard for scripture. The Tate informs us that the painting ‘celebrates God’s Covenant with Man after the Flood. The serpent in the centre represents the brazen serpent raised by Moses in the wilderness as a cure for plague. Here it symbolises Christ’s redemption of Man in the New Covenant’—but looking at the shimmering rotations of light and energy I’d go with the Dude and say ‘Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.’

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Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – The Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis, exhibited in 1843

One of the six rooms in this exhibition, suitably entitled ‘That Real Sea Feeling’ is devoted to his sea paintings and the canvasses make plain Turner’s receptiveness to  dialectics of wind and water and skies that cannot remain aloof to the conflict. Indeed, the sky fills from half to three quarters of these canvasses and their empirical subject matter is lost in the clashing colours of sea-and-sky motion. Sometimes, as in the unfinished Sunrise with Sea Monsters from around 1845, the painting’s title and its  half-hearted attempt to include a creature from the ocean’s depths only succeeds in getting in the way of a gloriously abstract exercise in dazzling effects of light. In The Disembarkation of Louis-Philippe at Portsmouth, 8 October 1844 it would be a hard task to guess at the painting’s subject were the title not presented to the viewer; it could just as easily be a scene from Dante’s Paradiso. In Regulus, the attempt to marry subject with meaning only succeeds in confusing the viewer. Regulus, a Roman general who was captured by the Carthaginians, was sent back to Rome to negotiate the release of Carthaginian prisoners. When he returned to Carthage, having failed his mission, he was punished by having his eyelids removed. The light-drenched canvas presumably depicts Regulus’s plight but the painting can hardly affect our sentiments; the symmetry of the scene and the buildings – in the 1820s Turner wanted credibility as a landscape painter in the tradition of Claude Lorrain – become unnecessary props for an explosive display of light.

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Regulus, first painted in 1828 and reworked in 1837.

There is a work in the exhibition, a watercolour, that demonstrates Turner’s masterly ability to coherently balance form and subject, reverie and reality. It depicts a mountain above Lake Lucerne in early morning and the delicate brush work enacts the fragile, textured interplay of light and colour. The sky is cobalt blue, the horizon glimmers yellow, Venus, the morning star, reflects in the still water and a bewitching blue tone infiltrates from one side. Look closely and flare from a gun fired from the boat on the left accounts for the wildfowl taking off to exit right. The watercolour was completed in 1842 and serves to remind the viewer that attaching any label to Turner – early, late, proto-modernist… whatever — carries a sell-by date.

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The Blue Rigi, a watercolour (1842)

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