Exhibition review: Late Turner at Tate Britian

Works never seen together before are united in this historic exhibition

According to Amy Concannon, a co-curator of this show devoted to Turner’s career from 1835, when he was 60, to his final RA exhibits in 1850: ‘If you can’t fall in love with Turner with some of these works, then perhaps we’ve got a harder job on our hands than we thought.’

She should surely have no need to worry, especially if visitors do not take too much notice of the current museum insistence that exhibitions must ‘challenge assumptions’. This time, the assumptions to be overturned are that the artist became a pessimistic old man and that his radical techniques took him beyond the understanding of his contemporaries and prefigured Impressionism and modern abstraction. The exhibition certainly shows little pessimism— if anything, Turner was more sociable than in earlier life—but art historians will continue to argue over his posthumous influence.

Burial at sea Turner at Tate

Peace—Burial at Sea (above) and War: The Exile and the Rock Limpet (below) are two of the nine controversial square canvases produced by Turner towards the end of his life. Exploiting shape and format in a new way, they were famously subjected to abuse in the press

War: The Exile and The Rock Limpet Turner at Tate

There are 150 works on show, drawn from around the world as well as the Tate’s collection. This allows, for instance, his nine unconventional, and thus at the time controversial, square paintings, to be seen together for the first time and, similarly, the group of Mount Rigi and Lake Lucerne watercolours There are such masterpieces as Ancient Rome: Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus, Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth and Rain, Steam and Speed—the Great Western Railway.

All demonstrate Turner’s remarkable mental and physical energy, his passionate exploration of light, colour and Nature, his fascination with the social, technological and scientific developments of his fast-moving times and his belief in the world’s spiritual and historical wholeness.

What was perhaps most radical in his late art was the fact that, even though his technical abilities had developed beyond recognition, it remained rooted in what he had been taught in the 1790s, when Claudean storytelling was an essential part of landscape. Turner might no longer use so many Classical figures and references, but even his most ‘scientific’ subjects contained anecdotal material This blend of advanced and old-fashioned could certainly unsettle contemporaries and younger artists.

Goldau, with the Lake of Zug in the Distance Turner at Tate

Goldau, with the Lake of Zug in the Distance: Sample study

Also, he revisited and sought to reorder his own past. As the curators point out, in these years, ‘he consciously developed his style and technique with each painting he produced. These works are often poised equivocally between finished and unfinished, for example in a series of reworkings in oil of subjects originally published as prints in his Liber Studiorum’. With an eye to his legacy, in reworking earlier pieces, Turner was concerned not to chronicle each stage of his career, but to make everything as perfect as he could by injecting into them what he had learned subsequently.

Similarly, on occasions in the 1830s, rather than rework an old painting, he would consciously produce a new work to stand comparison with it, just as earlier he had painted companions to works by Claude and Van de Velde. ‘Late Turner—Painting Set Free’ is at Tate Britain, London SW1, from September 10 to January 25, 2015 (020–7887 8888; www.tate.org.uk)

Mount Rigi

The Red Rigi Turner at Tate

This exhibition Brings together Turner’s three 1842 Mount Rigi Watercolours for the first time. The Red Rigi (Above) comes to the Tate from Australia for the show. 

The Blue Rigi Turner at Tate

The Blue Rigi (above) was Turner’s first attempt at recording the moment before dawn when the light of the sun appears to chase off the night’s cool darkness.

Turner at Tate: The Dark Rigi

The Dark Rigi (above).

Recently, I spent a few happy days on and around Lakes Lucerne and Zug, courtesy of Switzerland Tourism and the Tate. Lucerne was one of Turner’s favourite bases on his early 1840s tours and we followed his footsteps to a great extent. We could not stay at the Schwan, as he probably did for its views towards the Rigi and Pilatus, because it is now a restaurant rather than a hotel.

However, despite the lack of a view, the four-star Romantik Hotel Wilden Mann was a more than acceptable substitute. Lake Lucerne is the heart of Switzerland and Mount Rigi is the heart of the lake. Turner had drawn it in 1802 on his first Swiss visit, but the 1840s series of ‘samples’ and ‘specimens’— The Dark Rigi, The Red Rigi and The Blue Rigi—are, in many ways, the culmination of his watercolour art. In 1844, when Ruskin remarked on ‘the peculiar atmosphere’ of his recent watercolours, Turner replied ‘Yes… atmosphere is my style’, and there could be no better summary of the Rigi series. Turner never climbed Rigi, although it had long been a tourist destination for the vast panorama to be seen from the top. We did go up, but saw no more of the panorama than he did, as it was in thick cloud. Naturally, too, we could not travel on the lake’s first paddle-steamer as he had, but we did take a sunset cruise and dinner on the oldest of its successors.

It is always fascinating to see how a great artist has rearranged topography to suit his vision and this gave us the chance to view the mountains, Küssnacht, Brunnen, the Bay of Uri, Flüelen and, of course, Lucerne itself from Turner’s viewpoints, if not through his eyes. Switzerland Tourism: www. myswitzerland.com; Romantik Hotel Wilden Mann: www.wilden-mann.ch.

* This article was first published in Country Life Magazine on September 3 2014

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