Wednesday 16 September 2020

Landmark Exhibition: Turner's Modern World

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Venice the Bridge of Sighsexhibited 1840.
Oil on canvas, 68.6cm x 91.4cm. Tate, Turner Bequest
Tate Britain's new landmark exhibition of artist Joseph Mallord William Turner's drawings, watercolours and oil paintings will open next month. The show brings together 160 major works, capturing events of the painter's era, from the impact of technology to the modernisation of society, Antonio Visconti reports 

Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Burning 
of the Houses of Parliament, c. 1834-5.
Oil on canvas. 30.2cm x 44.4 cm 
Tate, Turner Bequest 
The exhibition at Tate Britain, called Turner’s Modern World, shows how the United Kingdom's greatest landscape painter found new ways to paint the important events of his time. There are rarely seen drawings and paintings, on loan and from the holdings of the Tate’s Turner Bequest. The artist's works evince his interest in social reform, especially his changing attitudes towards politics, labour and slavery.

Turner's paintings depict humanitarian causes including Greek independence from Ottoman Turkey, the 1832 Reform Act and the abolition movement. The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons (1835) shows his engagement with political events of the day. This was an event which Turner witnessed first-hand in 1834 and painted in a series of watercolour sketches. His A Disaster at Sea (1835) and Wreck of a Transport Ship (c.1801) are ambitious depictions of maritime catastrophes. The artist lived through turbulent times as Britain was at war for most of his life, spanning from 1775 until 1851, and revolutions and battles for independence were happening concurrently around the world.

Turner also witnessed the explosion of capitalism along with new scientific and technological advances such as the change from sail to steam and from manpower to mechanisation. One part of the exhibition focuses on Turner’s way of painting steam and how he developed a visual language for the modern world. His work was avant-garde and startled his contemporaries and his vision today is seen as an unusually perspicacious insight into the rapid change that engulfed the early 19th century.

Turner developed a new visual language for the modern world and his work startled his contemporaries

Joseph Mallord William Turner, 
Rain, Steam and Speed, 
- The Great Western Railway
Exhibited 1844. 
91cm x 121.8cm
© The National Gallery, London
Turner was always interested in the industrial world and in the 1840s he was the only one among his fellow artists that had steam boats and railways as subjects of major pictures. In this exhibition you can see Snow Storm (1842) as well as The Fighting ‘Téméraire’ (1839) and Rain, Steam and Speed (1844) on loan the National Gallery.

During Turner's lifetime, political reform plus the scientific and cultural advances transformed society and shaped a new future for the Western world. Living and working at the peak of the industrial revolution, Turner imbued his work with the changes happening around him whereas many other contemporary artists did not. The exhibition starts in the 1790s when Turner first observed life as a young painter and goes on to explore his fascination for industry as a new part of Britain’s agrarian landscape.

The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars brought Britain twenty years of conflict with France and living though this time added another dynamic to Turner’s work. The artist grappled with the drama and damage of war in paintings like The Battle of Trafalgar (1806-8) and Field of Waterloo (1818). However, he still liked to paint the Arcadian images of country life and work in Britain throughout his career.

This exhibition displays his recollections of wartime at home and his reflections on the reputations of Nelson, Napoleon and Wellington as well as on ordinary soldiers and civilians. While Turner’s love of mountains and the beauty of nature grew from his regular travel in Britain and overseas. His earliest tours were in England during the 1790s.

It was only in 1819, when he was forty-four, and at the height of his powers as a painter, that he made his first trip to Italy, filling twenty-three sketchbooks with drawings. The city of Venice became a recurring theme of his late work, in oils and watercolours, many of which were made during his stay in 1840.

Turner was the only one among his fellow artists that had steam boats and railways as subjects of major pictures

Joseph Mallord William Turner, 
War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet
Exhibited 1842.
Oil on canvas, 
79.4cm x 79.4cm. 
Tate, Turner Bequest
His late style, with its sweeping brushwork, powerful impressionistic effects and modern subject matter, was a revelation to the art world. Even some of his most devoted patrons, such as influential English art critic John Ruskin were bemused. But Ruskin disapproved of his sketches of nudes and was thought to have burned them in a fit of Victorian censorship. However, in 2005 these drawings were discovered to be mostly in the Tate collection, by Turner scholar Ian Warrell.

Today, the Turner Prize, is a top contemporary art award that was set up in 1984 to celebrate new developments in art. The award cited ‘Turner’ in its name because he was controversial in his own day and he had wanted to establish a prize for young artists. The painter is still considered an inspirational artistic figure as he broke with convention to paint the times in which he lived. Many artists ignored the industrial revolution but Turner faced up to these new challenges. And the artist transformed the way he painted to better capture this new world.

Turner first observed the effects of modern life early in his work and the exhibition's different sections follow his fascination for new industry and technology that led to his famous paintings of steam boats and railway engines of the1840s. The Tate exhibition also looks in detail at his engagement with the Napoleonic War and political events of his lifetime, including the 1832 Reform Act and the campaign against slavery. It also brings together for the first time major works by Turner from around the world, including The Fighting Temeraire (1839) and Rain, Steam and Speed (1844).

Dynamic brushwork, powerful impressionistic 
effects and modern subject matter, made Turner's late work a revelation to the art world

Joseph Mallord William Turner
The Fighting Temeraire,1838. 
Oil on canvas. 90.7cm x 121.6cm
© The National Gallery, London

The aim of the exhibition is also to explore what it meant to be a modern artist in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In Turner's later years he used oils vigorously to capture plays of light and glimmering colour. This mature style can be seen in Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (see above) where the objects in the painting are barely recognisable.

The intensity of hue and interest in evanescent light not only placed Turner's work in the vanguard of English painting but exerted an influence on art in France; the Impressionists, particularly Claude Monet, carefully studied his techniques and Turner is also regarded as a precursor of abstract painting.

The artist's talent and genius were recognised early in his life and the financial independence that brought allowed him to experiment freely with colour, composition and atmosphere. Ruskin described him as the artist who could most "stirringly and truthfully measure the moods of Nature".

But Turner's work did draw criticism from contemporaries, in particular from Sir George Beaumont, a landscape painter and fellow member of the Royal Academy, who described his paintings as 'blots'. Turner's imagination was sparked by shipwrecks, fires and natural phenomena such as sunlight, storm, rain, and fog. He was fascinated by the violent power of the sea, as seen in Dawn after the Wreck (1840) and The Slave Ship (1840).

Already a prodigious talent as a child, Turner  studied at the Royal Academy of Arts when he was fourteen years old, and exhibited his first work there at fifteen

Joseph Mallord William Turner
Shields On the River Tyne, 1823
Watercolour on paper, 

15cm x 21.6cm
Tate, Turner Bequest
Turner was accomplished as a Romantic painter, printmaker and watercolourist. His expressive work shown through his large-scale landscapes and marine paintings demonstrated his skill and unconventional vision and his prolixity.

He worked hard all of his life and was very prolific, leaving 550 oil paintings, 2,000 watercolours, and 30,000 works on paper.  By the time he was championed by John Ruskin, he was already very highly regarded by his colleagues at the Royal Academy. 

Born in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, London, to a modest family, he was known as William. His father, also William Turner, was a barber and wig maker and his mother, Mary Marshall, came from a family of butchers. He lived in London for most of his life, keeping his Cockney accent. Although he didn't show off his wealth and success, he was the friend and confidant of aristocrats and kings and stayed as a guest at some of Britain's great houses. 

Turner was already a prodigious talent as a child and studied at the Royal Academy of Arts from 1789, enrolling when he was fourteen years old, and exhibiting his first work there at fifteen. He went on to work as an architectural draftsman and then earned a steady income from commissions and sales of his own work. 

He opened his own gallery in 1804 and despite being very inarticulate, became professor of perspective at the Royal Academy in 1807, where he lectured until 1828. He first travelled to Europe in 1802, returning with the bulging sketchbooks that he would later draw on to create his large-scale oil paintings in his London studio. This wide-ranging exhibition gives a new perspective on Turner's work and shows why his paintings and drawings are as enthralling and emotive today as they were in the early 19th century. 

Turner’s Modern World is organised by Tate Britain in collaboration with Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The exhibition runs from the 28th of October 2020 until the 7th of March 2021 at Tate Britain, London.

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