Review: Late Turner: Painting Set Free

This review was published with The London Magazine this month.

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At risk of pointing out the obvious, it should be said before anything else, that J. M. W. Turner was always popular. Turner had many commissions and was championed by John Ruskin who damned half of The Royal Academy’s output as ‘ordinary tinsel and trash’ next to his work. Turner’s distinctive colours baffled many viewers, but Ruskin described these very hues as ‘the chastity of fire to the foulness of the earth’. Such intense praise has been emulated by curators of Tate Britain’s Late Turner — Painting Set Free, which will close on 25th January 2015. Late Turner subtly pays tribute to the last sixteen years of the artist’s life by including some of his most scrutinised features: The Classical depictions, the square paintings, and the most hated colour of all, yellow.

Late Turner doesn’t shy away from showing the artist as eccentric. In the exhibition’s commentary, which can be read or listened to for a fee, acquaintances of the artist describe his unusual blasé travelling habits as he toured around Europe. Travelling often, but never learning languages, he was happy in his solitude as he filled 300 sketchbooks with paintings and impressions. He also ignored fashion and drew on Bible stories, myths and legends for inspiration. Though he dealt with grim stories like the rape of Daphne, he panned-out from sensuality, treating the story as secondary to the sublime stage which it took place on. Case in point: In stark contrast to the sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (Apollo and Daphne (1622-25)) Turner placed two almost indecipherable figures of Apollo and Daphne in the centre of the canvas. In The Story of Apollo and Daphne (1837), he eclipses the heightened moment of escape captured by Bernini with the landscape.

Contemporary artist Olafur Eliasson’s has exhibited Turner Colour Experiment alongside Late Turner. The seven canvases are massive Rothko-sized paintings, centred with what look like primary colour wheels containing colours from Turner’s images. Similarly when walking through each room of Late Turner, the wall colours are immediately recognisable. Each are striking and vivid. The collection of square paintings which have been brought to the UK from America are set in gold frames against impressive dark blue walls, a colour used in some of his seascapes. In the final room however, the walls extol Turner wonderfully. This room is vast and contains numerous watercolours and whaling paintings. It is also painted entirely in a light, sunrise yellow.  Turner was once labeled a ‘chromo-maniac’ and ‘a chef with a mania for curry powder’ and his compulsive use of the colour irritated critics. Today it’s greatly admired, and used to symbolise the dazzling beauty of a painter once misunderstood.

Late Turner doesn’t seek to rub out any ‘eccentric’ reputation that Turner earned, but it does honour his legacy brilliantly. Highlighting his achievements rather than defining his work, Late Turner appreciates all shades of Turner, and embraces his radical styles and formatting methods. And just to close, If you visit soon, look for The Angel Standing in the Sun (1845)— you’ll discover how Turner really felt about his critics.

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