This isn’t any sort of anniversary year for JMW Turner, but one would be forgiven for thinking it was. The year opened with a superbly exciting show of his work in Greenwich, and comes to a close with the first museum exhibition to focus solely on his later work, as well as a new British film about him, Mr Turner, from director Mike Leigh.
Turner’s later work has always been my favourite: the atmospheric, free canvasses that evoke all the passion and movement with none of the fussiness of allegories or myths that so often seem to spoil things. It came as something of a surprise to find so many powerful early works at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, which almost doused one with their turbulent seas. Right from the first canvas Turner exhibited – a boat on a moonlit sea – to the wild cacophony of the shipwrecks and storms that greeted one at the entrance, his mastery in portraying the raw vigour of the elements was unquestionable.
It may smack of heresy then to say that Tate Britain’s EY Exhibition: Late Turner – Painting Set Free (until 25 Jan) goes a long way to remind me that there is much of this great British painter which feels unbearably stiff and dated. The Tate curators are at pains to dismiss any idea that Turner was a precursor to the abstract, or that he turned his back on his earlier styles. Indeed, the final paintings that he showed at the Royal Academy in 1850 reprise his love of classical mythology. And his enormous bequest to the nation always begs the question of what was an unfinished canvas and what the artist considered complete.
The show opens with a younger artist’s huge Biblical scene of Noah’s sacrifice, just to remind us of the prevailing images of the time and how different Turner’s work looked. Seeing that monstrosity is quite a sobering moment. Remember, too, that in 1835 the sixty-year-old Turner would have been considered to be in his dotage.
It is impossible not to view his great output through the prism of today, but Turner was very much a man of his time. He constantly measured himself against the best of the past and kept trying to stay ahead of his peers in his determination to seal his stature. So in the final 15 years of his life, he not only produced exquisite works such as the National Gallery’s Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway, taking up symbols of modernity such as the railway, the paddle-steamer or even the fire in the Houses of Parliament, but he also continued to choose historical allegories and classical myths as subjects. The confident freedom which abstracts the detail yet captures all the elemental passion of a landscape is so at odds with the laboured images at other times that they could be different artists.
Choosing watercolours out of the plethora the Tate possess must truly be a mammoth task, but despite the simple beauty of so many of his works, many of those chosen here seemed sadly inconsequential.
The Tate owns the largest collection of Turners, although around a quarter of the works on show here are loans. I would just as happily view a handful of my favourites when they are back home on the other side of Tate Britain in the Clore Gallery.