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Turner and the Masters

1 December, 2009

This past Saturday, Janet and I went to see the current exhibition at Tate Britain (Millbank in London) entitled, Turner and the Masters.  See Tate Britain

"Self-Portrait" c. 1799 (c) Tate Britain, 2002

JMW Turner (1775-1851) is one of Britain’s most important and influential artists — after whom the prestigious Turner Prize is named.   He is sometimes identified as a Romantic painter but I also see that he is also called an Impressionist and Landscape artist.  I’m left with the conclusion that Turner is hard to pigeon-hole.

What I did not appreciate is his biography.  Turner was the son of barber and wig maker, from whom he probably received his strong work ethic.  While there is no suggestion of any class anxiety on Turner’s part it is, nevertheless, not impossible to imagine that much of Turner’s competitiveness and inner sense of being driven to exceed arose out of his own upbringing.  Thankfully, however, the curators at the Tate did not indulge in any of this kind of psychoanalysis.  They offered us something far better and more interesting.

The Tate exhibition deftly shows the relationship between Turner and some of the Grand Masters of Europe (such notables as Rembrandt, Van De Velde , Poussin and, especially, Claude Lorrain.  Turner looked back to these European greats and “emulated” some of their techniques and touches.  Turner’s use of light, some of his themes and some of his subjects are directly borrowed from these earlier artists.  Emulation was an important statement of respect and appreciation.

'Norham Castle, Sunrise" c. 1845

Yet Turner also was willing to attempt things on a grander scale: he emulated or borrowed from the past out of an aspiration to show not only his indebtedness to the past but his equality with the past and, even, his superiority to the past.  This is a particular feature of the exhibition at the Tate: it shows us the complex nature of Turner’s respect for the past and his own drive to show his equality with the past.  Evidently, Turner was driven by the need to show his patrons and wider “audiences” that he too could be classified as a “Great”.  Turner went even so far as to “compete” with his contemporaries (Constable) and those younger than he to show his own prominence.

Turner unquestionably was a hugely gifted artist — there’s little doubt of this.  Nevertheless, as the Tate exhibition reveals, he did not always succeed in substantiating his equality with some of the Great Masters.  Turner, in some cases, simply couldn’t “come up with the goods”.  Personally, when I compared Rembrandt’s use of light and his painting of windmills to the imitations of Turner, my vote went to Rembrandt.  This isn’t to take anything away from Turner!

Here is a link to a video about Turner and the exhibition from one of the Tate’s curators:

\”Turner and the Masters\”

If you have the opportunity to see this exhibition, by all means do so!  It is worth the admission price and the Tate Britain should be commended for this level of exhibition.

One thing I did notice and it made me ponder for some time: I didn’t see that many young people (under the age of 30) at the exhibition. Of course, one Saturday’s attendance does not an irrefutable fact make — the place may have been heaving with young people on other days.  Still, I did wonder if young artists are encouraged to view the Grand Masters and their heirs.  Is emulation an important feature in today’s training?  Or is novelty and the iconoclastic more highly prized?

I don’t mean to pose a facile question here.  I simply wonder if some of the ways we educate and train people today ends up falling short because: (a) We think the past has nothing really worth considering (b) We indulge young people in believing  they already “have artistic gifts within them waiting to be released” and so rush them on to this moment of “actualisation” or (c) We, ourselves, have lost contact with the past.

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2 Comments
  1. alastairgordon permalink

    Went to see this today and appreciate your comments. Sadly I don’t constitute an under 30 any more. You’re rightthough, very few young artists in the gallery. As a near under 30 however I really loved the exhibition and agree we need more study of past masters at art college. I was taught to assimilate the past but this is different to learning from the greats. I wrote a review on my blog before I read yours them hurriedly posted a footnote with a link to your blog – hope you don’t.

  2. debmercer permalink

    Thanks for the very thoughtful and well written commentary on this exhibition. As a former art history major I appreciated your insights.

    Your observation about the dearth of under-30s was spot-on as well. This was a hot-button issue for museums 24 years ago, when I worked for The Sackler Gallery, at The Smithsonian Institution in D.C. “Where and how was the next generation of museum-goers going to be raised up?”

    The so-called blockbuster exhibitions of the 70’s and 80’s were created to make museums more “au courant”; adding Imax theatres and glitzy gift shops in the 90’s were other ways to make museums more attractive; more recently, the buzzword in museum circles has been “interactive exhibits” to attract the tech-savvy generation.

    But now, with more “entertainment outlets” than ever available to families, the issue of attracting young visitors is even more critical.

    One way to raise up the next generation of museum goers/supporters is to start walking the walk: parents will have to make a tangible commitment to exposing their children to age-appropriate “doses” of culture.

    Short visits tailored to specific interests are key: asking them about what they see will engage them; including a sketch pad and colored pencils so they can record what they see allows them to “take ownership” of the event and makes it more personally meaningful; a snack at the cafe helps them stay focused; and leaving as soon as they become fidgety is always a good idea.

    We’ve seen many families visiting the museums in D.C. but that’s probably because there are no admission fees charged. It’s easier to make short, kid-friendly visits when there are no costly fees. Especially in these cash-strapped times.

    Perhaps the museums should consider adding more “free admission” times to build their base of visitors.

    Deb (O’Brien) Mercer
    Washington, DC

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