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How Turner Loved Painting, So He Set It Free

“If you love someone,” pop star Stingsang years ago, “set them free.” Sometimes the first rule of love is forgetting all the rules that constrain the object of one’s affection, while trusting that the beloved will return on their own. Nineteenth century British artist J.M.W. Turner knew all the rules of painting from the Old Master tradition, but once he reached his seventh decade and found himself an Old Master, he began cutting ties to the old rules of his beloved painting and set it (and himself) free. The results, on glorious display at the Tate Britain’s exhibition Late Turner: Painting Set Free, heralded new directions in art followed by the Impressionists and nearly every modern art movement to follow.

Late Turner implies an “early Turner,” which, for the purposes of this exhibition, consists of Turner’s work up until his 60th year—1835. “Early Turner” consists of the classic English landscapes and seascapes (The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory or Crossing the Brook) as well as appreciations of classical themes (Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps or Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus). Early Turner epitomizes the Romanticism sweeping through England and Europe at the time—a simultaneous pull back to classical themes and push forward to a whole new ideal of the individual. Such new tastes needed a tastemaker to champion them, a task the young art critic John Ruskin took up as his personal quest. Ruskin evangelized to the public the benefits and “truth” of this new kind of art founded in nature in his landmark study Modern Painters.

The first volume of Modern Painters, published in 1843, could just as easily been called Modern Painter for its single-minded focus on Turner. Ruskin’s prose earned both him and Turner greater reputations. But, despite publishing nearly a decade into “Late Turner,” Ruskin preferred the early work. By 1846, Ruskin went so far as to call Turner’s later work “indicative of mental disease.” Where Turner once worked with crystal clarity and close attention to natural detail, these new paintings synthesized a new, expressive power with the old subject matter. For Ruskin, it was as if his favorite jazz artist moved on from playing the old standards in breathtaking but still recognizable ways to a whole new kind of free jazz apparently unbound by rules. Turner, quite simply, had gone mad in Ruskin’s eyes. It was better to turn a blind eye to his favorite artist, who stubbornly decided to keep living and keep painting.

What may have infuriated Ruskin the most about Turner wasn’t so much that he was changing with the times but that he was changing in a way most people, especially people Turner’s age, were not changing. Turner continued to look to the Old Masters, but he also kept an eye out for new developments in technology, science, and society itself.

For a man born in the age of sailing ships, Turner must have found steam engines magical with their startling promise of speed. His 1844 Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway captures not only that sense of speed but also Turner’s physical pleasure in it, both of which he translates directly into his handling of the paint. Whereas others at the time feared that trains might go so fast they would suffocate the passengers, Turner fearlessly called for full steam ahead.

Similarly, we see the death throes of slavery in Turner’s 1840 painting Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On), inspired by Turner’s reading of British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson. Although Britain had abolished slavery by 1833, the peculiar institution continued elsewhere—most infamously in America, land of the free. Changes in society and social norms, however, would soon lead to slavery’s end everywhere. The painting’s first owner, interestingly enough, was Ruskin, who cast aside his prejudice against Turner’s late work in this case, perhaps compelled by the social content enough to overlook the new style. “If I were reduced to rest Turner’s immortality upon any single work,” Ruskin wrote later of Slave Ship, “I should choose this.”

Turner’s combining of something old with something new characterizes much of Late Turner. Perhaps no single work epitomizes Turner’s multitasking late period as much as Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory)—The Morning After the Deluge—Moses Writing the Book of Genesis (shown above). While going back to the very beginning of beginnings in the Biblical book of Genesis, Turner takes a page from Goethe, another furious Romantic and Renaissance man who delved into science long enough to publish his Theory of Colours in 1810, which Turner devoured and put into practice. Light and Color broke boundaries not just with Turner’s tornado-like technique, but also with its square-shaped canvas. Late Turner brings Turner’s late square canvases together for the first time in just one of the many shows within the larger 150-painting exhibition.

Turner remains one of those strong branches on the tree of art history from which multiple new branches flourish. Turner himself appreciated and understood his place in art history, even requesting that certain of his paintings donated to Britain always be hung beside inspirations such as Claude Lorrain. Recent Tate exhibitions such as Turner Whistler Monet and Turner Monet Twombly testify to the endless connections you can trace back to Turner, especially in his late work that can look like Impressionism, Abstract Expressionism, or any other modern “-ism” if argued properly. The Tate’s unrivaled Turner collection (thanks to the artist’s own bequest to his country upon his death) helps make such connections as well as spotlight shows like Late Turner possible.

But what makes Turner such a lasting figure? In Lastingness: The Art of Old Age, Nicholas Delbanco studied why some artists fade away as they age while others continue to grow and thrive. The common thread for those artists with “lastingness” was their optimism—an open-eyed faith in the future. As Victorian England turned repressively inward around him, Turner continued to push the boundaries of painting outward. For Turner, the innovations of his changing world served as an invitation to continue innovating his medium in response.

In 1858, years after Turner’s death, Ruskin found himself charged with organizing the vast collection of Turner’s works donated to the nation.  To his dismay, the sexually repressed Ruskin found risqué nudes by Turner. To protect Turner’s reputation, Ruskin burned those nudes. Or at least that’s the story Ruskin told and people believed for almost 150 years. A decade ago, archivists found buried in the Turner trove what they believe are the infamous nudes, undamaged but effectively lost in the sea of paperwork by Ruskin. Although Ruskin couldn’t accept that aspect of Turner’s art, he (fortunately for us) couldn’t bring himself to destroy it. Likewise, Late Turner is Ruskin’s worst nightmare, but a dream come true for those who believe that great art—especially great art rejected by contemporaries—lasts until its time finally comes. Late Turner: Painting Set Free proves that Turner’s greatest gift to art, aside from the paintings themselves, remains that unshakeable faith in painting and the future of art itself.

[Image:J.M.W. Turner (1775 – 1851). Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory)—The Morning After the Deluge—Moses Writing the Book of Genesis. Exhibited 1843.Oil paint on canvas. Support: 787 x 787 mm. Painting Tate. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856.]

[Many thanks to the Tate Britain, London, England, for providing me with the image above and other materials related to the exhibition Late Turner: Painting Set Free, which runs through January 25, 2015.]


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