A gift to behold; J.M.W. Turner
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 3 November 2015)

In 1851, one of the grand cultural figures of the 19th century, Joseph Mallord William Turner, left a huge collection of his art - nearly 300 oil paintings and about 30,000 sketches and watercolours - to the British people. For generations, London and its visitors have been going to the Tate Gallery to enjoy that uncommonly generous bequest. Now, until January 31, some of the best works in his gift are in Canada, showing in Turner: Painting Set Free at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

The paintings and watercolours that fill the show are mainly from his last 15 years, when he was establishing his legacy with a stream of pictures that were more audacious, more ambitious and more Turneresque than anything he produced earlier. In 2015 Turner is more famous than he's been in a century. Last year movie audiences saw a great actor, Timothy Spall, embody him in Mike Leigh's enthralling film, Mr. Turner. Those who were impressed by that version of the man will be anxious to see this survey of his work. The AGO helps set the tone by showing some excerpts from the film within the exhibition.

In his twilight years, Turner did not slacken his pace or tame his images. He was driven to find turbulent form to match the turbulence within him. He quickened to violence. Dangerous storms at sea stirred his imagination and he eagerly claimed he had endured one himself while searching for material: "I got the sailors to lash me to the mast. I did not expect to escape." That story has always been considered dubious but one resulting picture in this show, Snow Storm, turns out to be gorgeous.

When Parliament was burning in 1834, Turner rushed to the scene like a news photographer of today. He made notes and turned them into art. To Turner, rain and fire and floods were evidence of divine power, the awe-inspiring natural world that humans would never master.

Light, his main subject, was the outpouring of God's spirit. He wanted to illustrate the endlessly diverse effects of light as it falls on water. He celebrated in his pictures the radiant skies that appear so often at sunset. People who go to museums a lot will sometimes find themselves thinking of Turner when the real sun is disappearing behind distant hills.

The exhibition title, Painting Set Free, reminds us of his place in the history of art. In his late years especially, he steadily pressed against the rules, asserting the painter's right to go where his imagination led him, even at risk of being considered eccentric - as he certainly was. A dealer reported to him that a collector named Lenox objected that the details in a Turner painting were indistinct. He replied, "You should tell Mr. Lenox that indistinctness is my forte."

The point becomes clear early at the AGO when Venice paintings by Canaletto and Turner hang close to each other. In the 18th century Canaletto made a successful career by showing the exact details of buildings and their place in the Venetian cityscape. In the 19th century Turner showed he was pursuing a radically different idea. Sitting with his paints on the steps of the Hotel Europa, he created a classical landscape but blurred the buildings so that he could describe the way light was refracted by the mist hanging over the lagoon. Sometimes he was called "the painter of light." John Constable, a friend and competitor and his most famous contemporary, said Turner made the air in his pictures with such delicacy that he seemed to paint with coloured steam.

That was one of several qualities that influenced the art that came later. Turner was impressionistic before Impressionism. Claude Monet, living for a while in London around 1870, studied Turner's paintings and became the first of the French artists who learned from him. From there it was only a few more steps to subject-free art, through Wassily Kandinsky's inspirations at the beginning of the 20th century to Jackson Pollock's in the middle.

Turner, for all his grumpy self-confidence, never went that far. He always had a stated subject, which could be anything from an ancient Greek myth to the modern phenomena of locomotives and whaling expeditions. Often, however, Turner gave so much attention to the surrounding atmosphere that the ostensible subject came close to disappearing. There was always the danger that a subject would be drowned by the energy of the paint that flowed from his brush.

Sometimes the collectors of his day thought that the late pictures looked more like puzzles than anything else they were accustomed to seeing. Even the great critic John Ruskin, Turner's most passionate cheerleader, occasionally found his work hard to grasp.

The question of subjects in Turner still baffles the public, as curators and critics know well. At the AGO, we're given a little help. And we need it when we stop before The Visit to the Tomb, subtitled "Aeneas and Dido try to cool their passion by visiting the tomb of the queen's late husband." Aeneas, a Trojan warrior and the son of the goddess Venus, has fallen passionately and dangerously in love with Dido, the queen of Carthage. The story may end in tragedy. But as you stare at the painting it's hard to find Aeneas or Dido, much less their consuming passion. The AGO has posted a helpful diagram to show us where to find the subject.

Turner played to large audiences and did not disdain the temptations of success. He was able to leave so much art to the country because he had amassed a considerable fortune in sales. Even so, in the 21st century his popular reputation around the world is less impressive than other artists of his stature. That's because his great virtues seldom come to life in colour reproduction. Others, from Botticelli to Matisse, spread their fame through art books, posters, magazines and even greeting cards. Audiences believe we can grasp the essence of many artists in reproductions. But Turner? His sudden explosions, his blinding suns and his poetic, blue-shadowed mountains need to be encountered in the original. Anyone who gets to the Art Gallery of Ontario will see the truth.

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