JMW Turner: Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth exh. RA 1842; Tate

A Certain Shaft Of Light

25th September 2009

Joseph Mallord William Turner – JMW to his friends – is often seen as an individualistic genius, but he spent much of his career ‘challenging’ the old masters by producing works he believed fit to be hung in their company. Jack Watkins reviews Turner and the Masters, at Tate Britain, a rare exploration of how the man measured up…

With proper respect to John Constable, there seems to be a general consensus that JMW Turner currently occupies the number one spot in the canon of British painters. So what a brave move by the Tate – after all, the guardian of the reputation of our national art – to set his paintings alongside those of the greatest names in European art, such as Titian, Veronese, Poussin and Rembrandt. Apparently, it’s an idea that the Tate had been toying with for some years, shying away from it until now lest our hero’s reputation be damaged by setting his canvases amidst such august company.

Now the bullet’s been bitten, and the comparisons can be made. In some cases, in fact in many cases, it is indeed Turner who comes off second best – and by some distance. But, as Professor David Solkin, the curator of this riveting exhibition, says, that’s not the whole point. The prospect on offer here is one of seeing how an artist learns his craft, inserts himself into a tradition, and ultimately finds his own voice. Turner admirers, in any case, will be relieved to hear that, if half-way through the show, things are looking grim for ‘our boy’, by the end, looking at a pair of Claude and Turner paintings side by side you may find yourself asking, which one is the real master?

In Turner’s day, the only way to progress in art was by respecting your predecessors. Before you could tear up the rule book, you first had to learn it. Turner was no different, despite his precocity and individualistic cast of mind, but his aim was to elevate the standing of the landscape genre, up until that time deemed to be a lowlier art form than portraiture or historical paintings. His early inspiration was Richard Wilson, who’d died in abject poverty in his native Wales in 1782, but who by the end of the century was finally being recognised as the founder of classical British landscape art. Two of his canvases – not perhaps among his greatest – are here, side by side with a pair of Turners. They show how the fledgling artist was influenced by the older man’s careful compositional style, while already having the confidence to offer a bolder treatment of clouds and lighting.

Soon, however, he would fall under the spell of men of even higher stature. Seeing the collections of early patrons acquainted him with the engravings of Piranesi, whose influence can be seen in the long perspectives and atmospheric interior lighting effects of his early architectural watercolours. He was much affected, too, by Rembrandt’s biblical scene, Landscape with the Rest on the Flight to Egypt, noting how the artist used the warm light from two fires as a means of highlighting the ‘grey glumness drawn from the gloom’. His own attempt to repeat the effects share the same wall. Admirable enough, they’re not a patch on the Rembrandt, whose brooding shadows capture the chilling inhospitality of the nocturnal hours.

In 1802, JMW was elected a full member of the Royal Academy – no small achievement for this scruffy little man, often derided for his lack of social airs, and his unremarkable looks. Perhaps of greater impact on his career development, though, was a brief window of peace in the hostilities between France and Britain, which enabled him to travel to Paris.

In the Louvre, stacked with art works accumulated by Napoleon on his European campaigns, Turner came face to face with all the masters. Daunting as it must have been, instead of limping off back home and carving out a respectable niche within more homely English traditions, Turner responded to the challenge head on. One work he had particularly come to see was Nicolas Poussin’s Winter – The Deluge. The 27 year-old scribbled copious notes, praising its colouring but criticising the drawing of the figures. Returning home, he produced his own version, a restlessly posturing piece, somehow lacking the solemnity and precision of its model.

The impression is repeated in a further pairing of the two artists on the opposite wall. After all these years, you might expect to find Poussin static and flat next to Turner’s sense of movement and golden light. Once again, though, the Turner is palpably inferior to Poussin’s meticulously balanced composition, where no space seems wasted. Whereas his roadside figures truly belong, Turner’s look perfunctory, the foreground vegetation a routine compositional device. Trees merge carelessly with mountains, the whole effect being to turn you back to the Poussin to appreciate what you had not realised was there.

It gets worse. In the next room, Turner’s Holy Family flounders next to Veronese’s The Finding of Moses. Elsewhere, more successful are his imitative ‘tributes’ to Claude Lorrain, an artist with whom he was more obviously in sympathy, and to Canaletto, although his Venetian paintings substitute the latter’s extreme accuracy for a more painterly, poetic approach to detail.

Of course, Turner was always a man for the ‘Hollywood’ effect. Take a look, for instance, at his furious reworking of Van de Velde’s sea storm in the first gallery. When it worked, as here for a commission received when he was still in his early twenties, the results were sensational. “Yes, atmosphere is my style,” he once said. You have to wait until the last rooms of this exhibition to see Turner as we’ve come to know and love him, in works such as Snow Storm, where it becomes impossible to see where the sky begins and the sea ends, and the boat is a mere vapour.

By the time he painted Regulus in 1828, he was able to take a classically Claudian scene of a port at sunset and turn it into a part study of the effects of lights on stone. You have reached a point in the history of painting where how the effects are achieved seem to outweigh the subject matter itself. With a quiet little sigh of relief, you remember why you loved JMW Turner in the first place: not as derivative artist, but as a man who truly did transform landscape art.

Turner & The Masters continues at Tate Britain until 31 January 2010.
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