Turner from the Tate: The Making of a Master

My mother gave me a most wonderful gift recently, taking me to visit this exhibition in Adelaide (approx 1,200 km flight each way).

I feel extremely nervous writing about the exhibition, being in the early sections of an Art History course from an English college. I haven’t read the later parts of the OCA course which would include Turner, but am very aware of a comment in the course notes mentioning Turner’s work as “indisputably part of the British canon, at the very least” (1). Generally when writing in this blog about exhibitions I happily spout personal opinions both positive and negative, regardless of ignorance about history or context of the work. My opinions modify (or not) over time as I learn and experience more, and taking up a position which I can test, change and maybe knock down seems a reasonable part of a learning process. It feels a more exposed position to ignorantly spout about a part of the canon, the heritage, of the very well-informed person assessing me.

On the other hand, I want to capture my initial impressions so when I do get to that section of the course I remember the impact and my initial reactions and questions, and thereby maybe get a little further and a little deeper in my learning and understanding. So apologies, but here goes – not a complete, informed or integrated story, just random jottings of initial impressions.

turner_01_avalancheA surprising plus is that the gallery allowed photographs (no flash or video) – unfortunately quite unexpected, so I only had my phone camera which struggled with the low light, glass reflections etc. This photo shows The Fall of an Avalanche in the Grisons (1810), which was the subject of my first annotation (15-Mar-2013). For some bizarre reason I didn’t take a clear photo – perhaps because I was trying to concentrate on seeing. Plus I bought the catalogue which has better images than anything I could take – but that doesn’t help in illustrating the blog. Perhaps most of all it was because it was like visiting with an old friend – I’d just come through a doorway, saw the painting across the room, so familiar and yet so much more, and I almost ran across to greet it.

One big difference for me in seeing the original versus the reproductions was the variation in amount of paint. The upper left corner showing a distant clear sky and closer sheets of rain (?) is much thinner and smoother than the violently swirling lumps of paint in the foreground. Also some things I couldn’t quite see or make out in the reproductions (note the “(?)” above) I still couldn’t quite see or make out in the original. Colour in general was richer and more varied, helped by the play of light of the uneven paint surface. There’s a little line of quite bright orange coming from the bottom margin left of centre which leads up to the right, pointing towards the hut. I wasn’t even particularly aware of it in the print I had. More than anything the sheer physical presence, the scale and the way it could take up your entire field of vision, had a great impact.

turner_02turner_03The exhibition covers Turner’s entire career, with works dating from 1787 to 1844, and includes sketchbooks as well as finished works. The top photo here is of a sketchbook, Studies for Pictures: Isleworth c. 1805, showing Study for Dido and Aeneas, pencil, watercolour, pen and ink on paper. The photo below shows the oil on canvas painting Dido and Aeneas (?c. 1805-06).

It’s interesting to see all the shifts between the two works. Together with more subtle compositional changes, the centre of the image has been opened out, broadened, providing a sweeping vista of the city in the distance and also space for the glowing light of the sky. There is also a greater range in values, producing an almost theatrical spotlighting effect on the figures in the foreground.

By coincidence there was an extra connection for me – the book I’d taken to read while travelling was The Aeneid by Virgil, and the previous night I had reached book four: The tragedy of Dido, although I hadn’t reached the hunting expedition depicted here.

turner_04turner_05Another interesting pair started with Scarborough c.1809 watercolour on paper. Washes of colour block the composition and the beginnings of that glowing sky can be seen.

The second in the pair is Scarborough town and castle: morning: boys catching crabs c. 1810 watercolour on paper (a painting that actually belongs in the Art Gallery of South Australia collection). There’s lots of detail and interest – I have the impression it was particularly popular amongst viewers, especially the young.

I don’t know if the earlier painting was part of planning and working through ideas, or a start that got stuck, or some other possibility. It would be interesting to learn more about Turner’s working methods.

turner_06When starting Textiles 1: A Creative Approach I had a lot of trouble with the concept of “mark-making”. Almost two years later, I really enjoyed Turner’s marks – so energetic and expressive. This photo is awful, but the best of a bad bunch. It shows The Ground of East Cowes Castle, with Figures among the Trees; a study for ‘Boccaccio relating the Tale of the Birdcage’ 1827, chalk and pen and ink on blue paper.

turner_07 turner_08Another example of exciting mark-making is seen in A Disaster at Sea, also known as The Wrecked Female Convict Ship, the Amphitrite: Women and Children Abandoned in a Gale ?c 1835, oil on canvas. On the right is a detail and below a photo of the full painting. You can see the waves crashing over the sinking vessel, the sprays of foam and swirling water, the tumult of the sea adding to the horror of the women convicts.

This painting was always going to receive special attention in the exhibition, given it is now believed to show a convict ship bound for Australia. Interestingly, in the light of my current OCA course, this possibility was first suggested in 1993 by Cecilia Powell (2). Clearly the products of art history are very relevant to the modern gallery visitor, evidenced by the large group around the painting as each guided tour passed through.

The painting was never exhibited, and according to the signage in the exhibition is “probably unfinished”. At first that seems strange, but really “finished” is quite an artificial construct. Apparently Turner was well known for making final touches to a painting as it hung in an exhibition. Without being able give an example, I’ve heard of painters reworking pieces after they’ve been exhibited, or even incorporating parts in later works. A recent newspaper article mentioned that van Gogh never regarded a work as final (3). However thinking about it in the exhibition made me feel uncertain.

turner_09turner_10This is Sun Setting over a Lake c. 1840-5 oil on canvas. It is very beautiful. I’ve put a detail below, trying to capture the flecks of colour, the textural globs of paint. The exhibition signage suggested sun, a lake, the Alps. That seems very reasonable, very probable. Perhaps it was unfinished. There was a suggestion somewhere (I’ve misplaced my notes – not good) that Turner had an array of unfinished canvases – I almost used the word “generic” – which he could quickly complete to meet a specific requirement or commission.

turner_11

At the bottom is a photo of War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet 1842 oil on canvas. Could that have been a semi-prepared canvas that was put to use for the occasion? Would it make any difference to the final result if it was? It was hung together with and in contrast to Peace – Burial at Sea 1842. Given the unusual (based on other works in the exhibition) proportions, the complementary colours and related themes, it seems the two must have been painted from scratch to meet the particular purpose.

The idea of setting up a “production run” is unpleasant to me. There are connotations of being “just” decorative, or perhaps too comfortable, churning things out. Which is an outrageous thing to suggest in the context of this exhibition, which demonstrates just how far Turner went, how he pushed and developed his art – the light, space, atmosphere, use of colour… Is it enough to say that viewing Sun Setting over a Lake was an absorbing and pleasurable experience, finding shadows and images, my own meaning and reflection, in what may be an unfinished work? Which seems to lead to questions around the interaction of the artist’s intention and the viewer’s experience and engagement. No answers, except to note yet again that I have a lot to think about and learn.

(1) Open College of the Arts (2010) Understanding Art 1: Western Art. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts (Document control number ua 1 wa121110), page 17 .

(2) Warrell, I. (ed) (2013) Turner from the Tate: The making of a master. London: Tate Publishing, page 197.

(3) New York Times (2013) Van Gogh’s ‘blue’ bedroom more a violet hue. The Sydney Morning Herald [online] 30 April 2013. Available from http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/van-goghs-blue-bedroom-more-a-violet-hue-20130430-2iqm0.html [Accessed 2 May 2013]

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Fabulous figure sculpting workshop with Kassandra Bossell!

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