Turner & The Masters And Others

A selective somnolent stroll? An involved investigation?

Spurred on by the knowledge that my annual subscription as a Tate member was on the brink of expiry, I decided, perhaps somewhat foolishly, to undertake an exhibition marathon; my goal – to visit all four of the current fee-paying exhibitions at Tate Britain and Tate Modern in a single day. Undoubtedly for some, the prospect of immersing oneself in the delights of JMW Turner’s celebrated paintings, the original yet demanding work of the Turner prize nominees, the shockingly explicit early work of Jeff Koons, or the elegant simplicity of John Baldessari’s conceptual pieces, promises the most perfect of days. Whilst for others, it might be asking a little too much; would my well-hardened feet, which have scaled many a gallery floor, withstand six hours of unremitting walking? Would my senses and judgements still be discerning after encountering the two-hundredth artwork?

I begun the day with the most historical of the exhibitions on offer, Tate Britain’s Turner and the Masters – an elegant exploration of the English Romantic’s self-placed rivalry with the great masters of the past and present. The exhibition considers how Turner set himself up against other artists, and sought to match, challenge and reinvent their work. I have always been fascinated by Turner’s position as an eighteenth century artist. Whilst his contemporaries innumerably sought to work in the style of the grand manner and fulfil the aspirations established by the Royal Academy, Turner hoped to innovate and push the boundaries of art. His work is so familiar to audiences today and has become such an integral part of art historical canon, it is easy to overlook the controversy surrounding Turner during his lifetime.

Monograph and group exhibitions featuring the work of J.M.W. Turner are now staples in gallery programming in the UK and on the continent. The seemingly unstoppable Tate Galleries have mounted an array of charging and free admission shows surveying Turner’s output across different media, often centring on themes that were particularly important to the artist. In 2005, Tate Britain staged Turner Whistler Monet, an exhibition that considered the legacy and influence of Turner’s work on the later artists James McNeill Whistler and Claude Monet. In its focus on the views of the River Thames, the Seine and the city and lagoon of Venice, the exhibition, along with many others besides, looked to Turner’s importance in developing the genre of landscape painting – the artist sought to elevate landscape painting to an eminence rivalling history painting.

Turner and the Masters takes Turner’s rivalry one-step further, moving from the artist’s broad attempts to change the popularity and appreciation of a genre towards personal competition. The theme of the current exhibition is thought provoking and successfully brings an under-represented element of Turner’s working practices into focus. Nevertheless it is by no means an easy topic to make visually stimulating or coherent; how can one bring a seamless flow to a subject that is sporadic throughout Turner’s career and needs to be examined against the work of other artists – the works Turner was evaluating and setting himself up against?

The exhibition is divided into six themes, broadly charting, in a chronological progression, Turner’s deepening consciousness of his role and abilities as an artist in relation to the work of others. Whilst the curators of the show undoubtedly suggest Turner’s competitiveness and self-belief grew as Turner matured as an artist, they infer that the Romantic always had an inclination towards this mindset. The thematic chronological hang is notably loose however, and this in my opinion makes the arrangement seem slightly illogical and disordered. The themes seem to have been picked out of nowhere – an interesting middle room on Turner’s engagement with Northern European art is followed by an area centring on the artist’s exploration of artistic biography. Later the role of summer exhibitions in Turner’s practice is the subject of discussion, and finally Turner’s self-invented legacy.

Despite the somewhat forced divisions of this exhibition, the show is outstanding. Each room itself is skilfully curated and the works by Turner and other artists sit side-by-side complementing one another and offering revealing and insightful juxtapositions. Interpretation is kept to a minimum (at least in respects to other shows put on by Tate Britain) and visitors are invited to deliberate over the artworks themselves. Having visited all of the Tate shows that day Turner and the Masters was notably the most popular current exhibition. Visitors seemed to be spending a long period of time in each room, although they were clearly more excited by the delights of Turner’s brush than the particular curatorial message running through the show.

In my opinion, the success of this exhibition is founded on the placement of Turner’s works next to those he was emulating, translating or rivalling. I thoroughly enjoyed the National Gallery’s spring exhibition, Picasso: Challenging the Past, yet I found the absence of the original old masters a point of contention in the concept of the British show. How can one fully appreciate what these artists were doing, how radical their actions were, without putting the artists and their work in context? In room one -‘Education and Emulation’ – of Turner and the Masters, the comparison of Turner’s Dutch Boats in a Gale (‘The Bridgewater Sea Piece’), 1801 with a seventeenth-century Dutch seascape is compelling. The comparison is not intended to persuade visitors to assess the relative merits of these artworks (although this guilty pleasure often unintentionally surfaces in one’s mind), but rather inspire audiences to consider the different translations presented of the same subject. Why did Turner make the changes he did; why did he feel a looser brushstroke or a reversed boat would make the scene more aesthetically effective? The history of these artworks is also fascinating. Numerous works in the exhibition including The Bridgewater Sea Piece were commissioned as a companion piece to an older work in a patron’s collection. Would Turner have developed his mindset without the pull of these commissions encouraging him to actively evaluate the work of other artists?

After enjoying the pleasures of Turner and the Masters I continued on to the other exhibitions. As fatigued as I was by the end of day – my legs weary, my brain consumed with images like a disordered scrapbook – I felt fulfilled, rewarded by my gruelling challenge. As well as learning about new artists and encountering new artworks, I had experienced something of an epiphany moment about the way I behaved in exhibitions. I started the day religiously reading every wall text, scrutinising every label, even re-reading the offered interpretation material. I pondered in front of the masterpieces of Turner and his counterparts, enjoying the works that grabbed me, and attempting to appreciate those that I found less pleasing but were undeniably brilliant because they were by Turner. Yet, as the day went on, I became tired. In Pop Life, I only studied those works that instantly excited my curiosity. I became, in my eyes, less judicious; in fact, I felt guilty for not spending equal time considering each work. Was this laziness, or was I becoming more discerning? Maybe I needed the exhaustion to be a critic?

How are we ‘meant’ to act in an exhibition? It is very different to one’s feelings when browsing through a permanent collection. Exhibitions are ephemeral; they have an expiry date. We are blessed to have access to works of art that are often normally out of reach, perhaps usually held in a private collection or in a far-strung collection across the globe. There is a worry that this will be our only chance to see these artworks in person. That is why I felt and still feel obliged to examine every art object with the same amount of appreciation, like a mother sharing equal love to her children. But this does not necessarily mean we are getting everything out of the experience we should or could. I am not saying lets just look at the paintings that grab us immediately, as some that have the greatest affect need time to work their magic. But perhaps it would not do any harm in emulating my marathon technique once in a while, or going to an exhibition when you are weary, so you look at works in a different way. Even better, revisit an exhibition – try a close study and try a weary wander.

Turner and the Masters
Tate Britain, Millbank,
London. SW1P 4RG
23 September 2009 – 31 January 2010
Exhibition open 10.00–17.40 (last admission 17.00)
Tickets £12.50. Concessions available

Image: JMW Turner – Moonlight, a Study at Millbank (Exh. 1797, © Tate)

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