The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), in collaboration with the Tate in London, has curated an exhibition of J.M.W. Turner’s final works. Turner (1775-1851) is one of the 19th century’s finest artists. He gained early fame for his paintings of landscapes, seascapes, and historical and religious paintings. These were common themes for painters in the early and mid-1800s; however, the AGO exhibition reveals a later Turner more oriented towards abstraction and experimentation with light and colour, in both oil and watercolour. The last fifteen years of his life were indeed very productive
Titled J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free, the AGO exhibition consists of 50 large-scale paintings and watercolours, as well as sketches and drawings. The preliminary studies and larger works mark Turner’s efforts in radicalizing the use of colour, light, and canvas. Akin to many innovative painters in the mid-19th century, Édouard Manet famously, Turner also received much criticism for his experimentation.
The exhibition thus recounts his innovations and its historical criticism, even reproducing cartoons and quotations explicitly debasing Turner’s style. Rather than deal with Turner chronologically, Painting Set Free organizes the material thematically: watercolours, sketches, seascapes, ships, fishing, and historical and religious paintings. Curated in this fashion, the exhibition becomes less about biography and gleaning facts – as many documentary films are prone to do – but puts paintings side-by-side to foster an aesthetic appreciation of each individual piece and as a part of Turner’s thematic interests.
Naturally the exhibition contains some information about the man and his travels, his companion, and his habits, but these placards usually reveal something about an artwork rather than simply existing as biographical facts.
This method of collecting biography and artwork resonates with Mike Leigh’s well-received biopic Mr. Turner (2014). Leigh was less concerned about generating a list of biographical facts than he was with giving us a feeling or tone of what it might have been like to be Turner.
Painting Set Free hangs a number of screens showcasing Leigh’s film and Timothy Spall’s wonderful performance. One clip depicts the fictional Turner hard at work and provides a commentary by Spall on what it means to be a passionate painter; another presents perhaps the most famous happenings in the artist’s life.
Turner wanted to see and feel an eye of a storm for a new painting. He therefore had himself fastened to the mast of a ship during a torrential storm, reportedly for several hours. This personal study of the weather translated into one of Turner’s most famous works on display at the AGO, Snow Storm – Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842). The painting is one of Turner’s studies of the swirl, a painting in which colour and shade spiral inward to reveal some object (usually in the center).
Turner seems to have captured an essence of a storm in this 1842 work. Art historian E.H. Gombrich observes, “We almost feel the rush of the wind and the impact of the waves. We have no time to look for details. They are swallowed up by the dazzling light and the dark shadows of the storm cloud… We feel small and overwhelmed in the face of the powers we cannot control, and are compelled to admire the artist who had nature’s forces at his command” (The Story of Art).
Similarly, The Angel Standing in the Sun (1846) features a swirl of golds, browns, and blues to emphasize the Archangel Michael with his flaming sword on the Day of Judgment. The bottom of the canvas depicts obscured figures from the Old Testament.
Other highlights include one of the greatest watercolours ever produced, according to critics – The Blue Rigi, Sunrise (1842). This famous work is surrounded by Turner’s small watercolour studies of the Rigi; to be a master, visitors learn, one must have patience and perseverance to complete preliminary studies again and again, from different angles with different light and different colours.
Sunrise with Sea Monsters (c. 1845) grabbed my attention as well. The background contains a number of brushed yellows, and the strange shape at the lower centre of the painting – referred to as the monster – is likely a depiction of fish. Nevertheless, this painting allows us to free associate and is a departure from the romanticism of Turner’s time.
I recommend taking a trip to Toronto to see these wonderful paintings. Painting Set Free runs until January 31. For more information, visit ago.net.