When I was a teenager I discovered the great English painter Joseph Mallord William Turner (23 April 1775 – 19 December 1851) at around the same time that my infatuation began with the other romantic artists in other media. In poetry that meant especially Coleridge, Shelley, Byron and Keats. In music that meant Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner and Debussy. In visual art? Turner, Goya, and Gaugin were the ones I admired so much that I plastered their images all over my wall, buying books full of their pictures. And so for a time i lived with reproductions of “Rain, Steam & Speed” and “The Fighting Temeraire” on my wall (among others), obsessed with Turner’s approach to light & atmosphere.
When the works of a famous artist suddenly turn up in front of you there are at least two impulses at work.
1. You want to see great art as in: paintings that are done well, that move you somehow, or that are examples of great skill
2. You want to see great art as in: paintings that are famous or influential or that move you because you’ve seen them (or works like them) in art books.
The Turner show that just opened at the AGO “Painting Set Free” brings a great deal of great art to town. You will likely feel that you’re in the presence of amazing art, especially if you look at the date. Nobody in the world was painting this way this early: except of course Turner, a painter who feels like the godfather of the Impressionists, the first 20th century painter, even if he happened to die in 1851. It’s a juvenile concern, but while I experienced #1 (the delight in great artistry) as far as #2 is concerned (the thrill of seeing a famous painting in person), I was sad that I didn’t see those favourite Turner paintings in this show, possibly because they’re national treasures of incalculable value. But then again he was such a prolific painter that there’s still lots of genius on display. There are plenty of other images that resonate with the same sort of power in this show, whether it’s the romantic images of “War The Exile and the Rock Limpet” (including a very unique depiction of Napoleon) or the “Snow Storm” painting that is so prominent as you enter the gallery.
This is the sort of show that you can visit over and over, indeed I believe one needs to see it more than once. We’re especially looking at Turner’s last decade, the work from the 1840s, when the painter did some of his most daring work. At times one almost experiences vertigo as Euclidean space is compromised in swirls of wind & rain & surf. If we were to think of the continuum between accurate representation and pure abstraction, we see an artist moving further away from the more conservative style to something so daring as to leave the audience behind. At the time, Turner was ahead of his time, not fully understood & appreciated by the average viewer even if he developed a following among artists.
I must go back for another look.