Monday, 23 February 2015

Late Turner: Painting Set Free

Last month I visited Tate Britain for the Late Turner Exhibition. It ran from September 2014 to January 2014 and I managed to see it on its very last weekend! Unlike the last exhibition I visited at the Tate I had to buy my own ticket because I am no longer a student (boooo). While £15 entry burned a sizeable hole in my post-student-indebted pocket, I was happy to have spent money on it.

Pictured above is Tate Britain's pocket size exhibition guide that you get for free on the door to any given exhibition, they're very cute and pocket sized. It's probably smaller than your HTC or Iphone 6 (it's probably not). This will be my point of reference for all the factual stuff. 

Right, so. The exhibition space for the Tate Modern consists of 6 rooms, They are all moderately sized (except for room 4) and therefore for your £15 you get a lot of artsy things to look at. I say artsy things because curators are increasingly keen to mix things up a little bit. This is because as charity run galleries, museums and historical organisations are becoming the norm (English Heritage is becoming a charity in April!), and state run organisations are having their budgets squeezed, they can no longer rely on being kept afloat thanks to David C & Co. They need to draw in a larger audience.

You'll get the paintings that you expect from an art exhibition but alongside that you can expect diary entries, a death mask (it was morbid and we all love morbid), the artist's Palette, his Palette Knife and his glasses. These things bring an exhibition to life for me and my favourite things are always the diaries/correspondance between the artist and his friends/colleagues and whatever else. It must been an artiste thing to collect years worth of letters that the rest of us might consider clutter because it seems as if most exhibitions will feature letters of this kind. They are my favourite because you gather an understanding of an artists personality, in a genuine kind of way that is impossible to gather from their work. Because their work is always mindful of what it portrays. Their handwriting too, I have a thing for handwriting. It's great. 

The first room is called Turner After 60, Life, Work, Legacy. Turner turned 60 in the 1830's. During this period of his life he was potentially the most unpopular that he had ever been and would ever be. What he had hinted at 20 years (ish?) earlier with Rain, Steam and Speed (see here) had fully materialised with abstract forms and a subtle mastery of colour that he had spent decades conjouring up. I dragged my brother along with me (in exchange for supper out afterwards) and he did not like this room. He said quite simply that it didn't look as if Turner could paint. I protested, banging on about how special it is that artists were gaining this freedom to paint in this way, while insisting he was a very talented draughtsman that had CHOSEN to depict reality this way. Perhaps the Tate could have made the fact that this was a choice more obvious to their audience, so not to exclude people with no background knowledge in art? Or at the very least change the layout. I am all for chronology and starting with what was neither the end or beginning of the period being exhibited seemed a bit illogical to me.

The second room is called 'On the Wing' Travel and Tours 1835-45. This room, I suppose, was meant to complement the first one. This room focuses on Turner's travelling after he had turned 60 and featured lots of his sketch book works as he sketched along the way.  Throughout this period he visited the environmentally hostile, mountainous region of Val d'Aosta in Italy; whilst also visiting France, Luxembourg, Germany, Venice, Austria and Switzerland. He was old and frail but nevertheless went around documenting Europe and his work from this time is equally as weathered (visually not literally). The theme of this room gave these works a sense of importance in a way that the first one did not. In what was perhaps a rush to see the world in his old age his work gives off a sense of his repeated attempts to portray the scenes at his feet in a way that would satisfy him. Typically though, the vast number of sketches he produced and his erractic need to go off wandering suggested to me that he was not satisfied. Old artists are always sad, and as a romantic Turner was certainly not exempt from this. 

The third room is called Past and Present. This room shows for the first time how Turner was not solely concerned with the illustration of landscape. Here lay his pieces that concern themselves with history, mythology and engaging with the present day and feature paintings from throughout his career. The centre piece here, for me at least, was of course Rain, Steam and Speed which has always been my favourite. However this is a painting that is usually on display to see free at the National Gallery - so that's a bit cheeky. But then again, what is a Turner exhibition without this painting? The rest seemed to have been dusted off and removed from their own archive that is mostly made up from the Turner Bequest of 1856. I wouldn't have a clue how much it would cost to keep these delicate things safe and preserved. If I was to hazard a guess, I'd say a lot. So I'll let them off!

The fourth room was called Squaring the Circle: New Formats from 1840. As the title of the room suggests, this space featured an innovation from Turner: A complete transformation of the canvas. Not only in the shape of the canvases themselves, but how multiple scenes could be arranged together to portray something in a more powerful manner, making use of the different planes, instead of treating the canvas as one, linear, narrative. That is to say, the foreground may not be a visual representation of what was actually in the foreground of the vision; instead, the consciousness of the figure, or a different time. This reminded me a lot of the thought behind Michelangelo's Doni Tondo (see here). 

The fifth room was called That Real Sea Feeling. Turner eventually owned a boat, in Kent. This is really no surprise when you enter this room. Although evidence of his fascination with the sea is evident before you enter this room - the extent at which this was the case is made obvious here. He apparently spent a lot of time down south to contemplate the sea as he approached the end of his life. He was interested in the depth of the sea, the complexity of depicting it in a truthful way, the dangers at sea, the omnipotence of the sea over land and those that dared to cross it; oddly too, he was interested in whales. A whole side of the wall was almost covered in depictions of whales! An American Sea Captain, Elisha Ely Morgan, remarked that through all of the romantic 'fog and mystery' there was a good old 'real sea feeling' in him and his work. While he could have been an old romantic searching for the meaning and life and all that, he could have equally of been just an old man enjoying his older years by the sea, loving the sea life.

The sixth room was called Last Works. Finally - some chronology. These works were created in the late 40s and early 50s before his death in 1851. This room has an air of uncertainty about it because a lot of the works here have approximated dates and titles. It is believed his production declined after 1845 and many of the oil paintings displayed in this room are incomplete. His health could have dictated his preference for watercolours during this time given that they were easier to do.

All in all, I enjoyed the exhibition. Particularly how it questions the romantic notion we attach to Turner: was he actually the sad old romantic we assume him to have been? Or was he just a bit ill? Did he just really love the sea, as opposed to being attracted to it because of the romantic idea of the sublime? I also loved being able to see lots and lots of Turners. I have only ever really been able to see the handful that the National Gallery display in their permanent collection, so this was an experience I consider to be worth the money. Having said that, I wish the layout and themes were punchier and that they had a larger exhibition space for this - because it was busy! But this is why art is great. We all experience it differently. 

P.S shout out to all the passive aggressive tutters out there! Briefly walking past a painting because there were hundreds of people packed into a tiny space is not a crime. I dislike that entitlement is a trait among some gallery goers who clearly resent art becoming part of our wider culture. Art will become more popular, these places will be busier, and the sacred 2 metre gap you need between yourself and the painting to comfortably fit your colossal ego may be walked through!

P.P.S I need to watch the film Turner asap.

Some pretty paintings shown in the exhibition:

Fishermen on the Lagoon, Moonlight, 1840, Tate.

Regulus, 1828, Tate.

War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet, 1842, Tate.

The Blue Rigi, Sunrise, 1842, Tate.

A Harpooned Whale, 1845, Tate.

Venice: The Interior of a Wine Shop, 1833-35, Tate.

The Departure of the Fleet, 1850, Tate.

Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus, 1839, Tate.

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