Turner and the Masters
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
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.
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:
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.