Masterpieces from an artist who knew his worth
Turner’s art was revolutionary and he ensured it would be remembered, writes Sonia Harford.
Turner lashed to a ship’s mast witnessing a mighty storm is one of art’s enduring and epic tales. Legend has it the artist conceived his masterpiece Snowstorm amid the swirling chaos of snow and sea – a genius suffering for his art. However, the art curator Jane Messenger sets us straight.
‘‘It didn’t actually happen – but it goes to the myth of the artist and his passion, in capturing the fierce energies and the wrath of nature.’’
With his grand romantic vision, Joseph Mallord William Turner boldly revolutionised 19th-century British art. He is quintessentially British, and London’s Tate Gallery is synonymous with Turner’s legacy.
So distinctive is his style, most of us think we can spot a typical Turner several galleries away. Yet a major exhibition coming to Adelaide and Canberra next year, Turner from the Tate: The Making of a Master, reveals there’s much more to the Turner myth than snowstorms and Britain’s maritime might. (In fact, we won’t see the monumental Fighting Temeraire or The Slave Ship in Australia – those belong to other collections.)
Messenger, co-curator of the Adelaide show and curator of European and North American art at the Art Gallery of South Australia, says Turner went to great lengths to create a complete picture of his work. Wealthy and successful towards the end of his life, he bought back paintings from patrons or refused to part with them, bequeathing them to the nation.
‘‘He was very strategic as an artist,’’ she says. ‘‘From very early on he was conscious of constructing his identity in the public realm, and how he would be written into history.’’
Given the value of the bequest, London’s Tate Gallery is revered as the custodian of Turner’s work, and it also shapes the narrative of the artist’s life. We’ve had the legend – the Australian exhibition charts the man in full.
‘‘What distinguishes this show is that it’s only through the Turner Bequest that this comprehensive story can be told, of his development from precocious young man to the visions of a dying old man,’’ Messenger says. ‘‘We return to his time and follow him as he paints and sketches his way through life.’’
The Turner exhibition, a centrepiece of the Adelaide Festival and a winter blockbuster at the National Gallery of Australia, will have more than 100 oils, watercolours and sketches, some never exhibited. They will soon be on their way to Australia, including Peace – Burial at Sea, with its bright flame slashing the dark shadows; and a favourite of Messenger’s, Fall of an Avalanche in the Grisons, in which the work of man – embodied in a tiny cottage – is threatened by the crushing forces of nature, snow plummeting and exploding in the landscape.
While Turner’s style seems overly familiar – elemental, heroic sweeps of light and air – his subjects vary widely from sublime natural scenes to gloomy, backlit castles. Sea monsters haunt Turner’s oceans and historical stories glow from the canvas. The exhibitions will emphasise the breadth of a life’s work, the extraordinary arc from the tranquil to the turbulent.
From the start, a young and brilliant Turner, awarded a Royal Academy fellowship at just 26, emerged with lyrical landscapes – described by the art historian Simon Schama as places ‘‘of almost narcotic serenity’’. This, he says, was the ‘‘pleasureseeking, public-pleasing Turner that gently stroked the selfsatisfaction of Regency England’’ and became a wealthy man.
Turner had modest origins – the son of a barber in Cockney London – but the early promise he showed flourished at the Royal Academy and commissions flowed in. The Australian shows have a large collection of Turner’s later works, with their intense atmospheric charge.
Turner from the Tate: The Making of a Master will be at the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, from February 8 to May 19 and the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, from June 1 to September 8.