There are a lot of Turner paintings in the world and there are a lot here. These ones were all painted late in Turner’s life. I don’t know a huge amount about Turner – I can recognise his paintings and know when he was active, but I don’t have many preconceptions about who he was. But following on from the National Maritime Museum’s Turner and the Sea last year where the last room featured his later works I was excited to see a whole exhibition dedicated to these.
One thing I do know about Turner is he was an exceptionally talented artist and that is clear from the paintings on show. He was also imaginative, creating atmospheric, beautiful pieces rather than simply technical, perfect representations of an image and his later pieces go on to show more of the experimentation, while also the amazing technical ability that he’d developed throughout his life.
For instance, The Sun of Venice Going to Sea, exhibited in 1843 when Turner was 68. Venice is in the background with a Venetian ship sailing away from it. It’s difficult to make out Venice or what’s happening with the other boats in the picture, but all the Turner-esque skills of light and atmosphere are there, created by a mix of amazing techincal skills and an almost abstract intention.
Other works in the exhibition take the atmosphere of the sky and the sea further, with even less of a physical focus in the painting, with Sun Setting over a Lake making the sunset and the scene around that as the focus, with little else discernible in the painting. This is the type of exhibition where you really need to actually see the paintings to understand the exhibition as paintings like this one and some of the ‘unfinished’ or ‘studies’ displayed may look very similar on a computer screen, but in the flesh you can actually see the work involved.
We’re told in the exhibition that some of Turner’s later pieces were thought of as the ‘ramblings of a madman’ and some of them I do actually find quite humorous, but I’m not sure if I’m meant to – for instance Sunrise with Sea Monsters, doesn’t look hugely different to Sun Setting Over a Lake, but I love the ‘monsters’ in the sea – what are they? Apparently they’re fish, but I much prefer the idea of monsters.
Throughout the exhibition are examples of the places he traveled to for inspiration, his sketches and his watercolours as well as oil paintings, making it clear that this man simply never stopped. It’s not a surprise he was still active in his 70’s and that experimentation and honing his skills was important, painting the same thing since the age of 15 (when he first exhibited at the Royal Academy summer show) would have got pretty boring.
But what I really like is that even though he was conscious of money and getting the right patrons interested in his work he still bothered to experiment and had to deal with the negative reviews that would accompany that. And what I like best of all is that in a society where a shout of ‘my 5 year old could have done that’ to anything remotely abstract an artist that did experiment and whose style became increasingly abstract is one of the most famous artists in this country, revered by even the most conservative. And I hope that the idea of experimentation to create new, modern, exciting art, and that that is what art should be about will subconsciously enter the minds of any conservatives viewing this show.
Late Turner – Painting Set Free is on at Tate Britain until 25 January 2015