Turner From The Tate – AGSA – 5K

A Rare Bear

A Rare Bear

By Peter Maddern

It is perhaps easy to be somewhat underwhelmed by the Turner from the Tate exhibition on at the Art Gallery of South Australia as part of the 2013 Adelaide Festival of Arts. Indeed, local media identity, Peter Goers, described it as ‘boring’.

And for those seeking a wall to wall, ‘greatest hits collection’, it may also be that way but two means of appreciating the 100+ works now on show til mid May may assist in gaining greater appreciation and pleasure from the exhibition, one of the only almost generational visits that Turner’s works on this scale make to Australia.

The first comes from the designs of the Tate itself which specify that any exhibition of JMW Turner must speak foremost to presenting his progression as an artist. That chronological approach is certainly useful as one witnesses the development of his early craft based around a strong to desire to match then exceed the reputations of masters that had gone before. It is, for example, a most extraordinary display of immodesty to demand, as Turner’s will did, that his emulations of Claude Lorrain’s masterpieces should hang alongside the originals at London’s National Gallery. But remarkably, he got away with it.

Battle of Trafalgar

Battle of Trafalgar

A second approach to appreciating the exhibition is not to view it chronologically but rather to attempt to weave one’s way through it according to the various passions, views and eccentricities of a man, who, even for an artist, was decidedly odd.

In this regard, the manner in which he led his life is instructive. His best friend and house servant for many years was his father with whom he bonded strongly after the death of their sister / daughter and the subsequent madness, incarceration and death of their mother / wife. Yet, Turner also sustained a long tern relationship with a widow (Sarah Danby) whom he got settled nearby and sired two children but incredibly this was never known until after his death.

Indeed, as unhappy his relationship with his mother must have been some have speculated it was this horror that sub-consciously speaks to his tumultuous skies and seas. Turner once stated that his ‘first duty in life was to his mother.’

The Fighting Temereire

The Fighting Temereire

The young Joseph was also no looker; short, with jockey legs, a beak nose and not one to focus obsessively on personal hygiene.  It seems also he did not try to make up for this with generosity of spirit to others, especially towards his various lovers, who despite their devotion to him were (along with his issue through them) treated in an at best stingy manner. He was raised in gritty, grimy parts of London, which though very close geographically to the wealthy and royalty were for its residents otherwise a world away. While courting royal patronage, he also secured backers (such as Walter Fawkes) who were deeply loathing of the English status quo. He travelled alone, kept no diaries and eschewed working with assistants in his studio.

So, Turner though recognised by the Royal Academy at the age of just 26 spent a life in secret and mostly alone, balancing artistic expression between the need for an income and his desire to make statements, not just about his skill but about his times as well.

While JMW Turner may be regarded as a master landscape painter, it is on the sea that the history of Britain at this time is best recounted and where arguably his greatest works are focused. For this was the era of on-going Napoleonic wars, Nelson’s England and the arrival of the industrial revolution. While the idylls of the Lake District and Venice may have sold well, it was the tumult of his seascapes where his bravery as a painter and social commentator shine through.

The ruling elites of any society like to wash over quickly the reality and consequences of their decisions, good and bad, focusing on the heroic outcomes when they occur. Turner would have little of this and so his depictions of the defeat of the French (eg The Battle of Trafalgar – 1823-4 – see above) were not marked by triumph but devastating and apocalyptic imagery of those who died horribly in the battles. In A Disaster At Sea – 1835 we see not England’s boast of how, unlike its European neighbours and of course the Americans, it had risen above slavery across the empire but the human cost of its repatriation policies for criminals to colonies – here a vessel full of women bound for New South Wales was lost in sight of land by a captain more worried about his insurance that his cargo.

Then there is The Fighting Temeraire – 1838 (see above) where Turner neatly both ushers in the industrial revolution and predicts the mess it would cause to those in the cities through air pollution. Here The Temeraire is being tugged away for the last time. The yacht is beautifully presented in pristine condition, sails neatly folded, its masts standing on high while an ugly, black, sooting tug boat does the honours. The setting is not as may be expected, at sunset for the departing war veteran, but rather at sunrise – the glory days of Nelson and that England were now being taken away in a new dawn.

As for his eccentricities, it is not hard to see how Turner may have been respected but he was not loved. His works too often, while not political rallying calls to arms, tore away at the veneer of respectability and no doubt this cost him much of the royal patronage he craved. His famous efforts on ‘varnishing days’ at the annual Royal Academy exhibitions, which he saw as invitations to better, show up or even mock the efforts of rivals, must have infuriated his peers. But throughout his career, as much as he was revered many sustained a lifelong criticism of his work for its coarse techniques and those yellows and that when used to depict sunsets even now make you want to squint.

Through it all, the odd little loner held his nerve and did art his way creating a new view of the world at that time and ushering in the approaches of the impressionists of thirty or so years later and even, some say, the expressionists of a century beyond.

Accordingly Turner from the Tate delivers on showing the vagaries and genius of the man. None to that time had attempted to show the elements in such stunning states of suspended animation, especially the ‘sublime’ ones where nature towers so omnipotently over the flailing and egos of mere mortals. His ability to capture light and its emotional impact have stood the test of time and his extraordinary life’s work accordingly will always fascinate.

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