'J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free' Sheds Light on Proto-Modernist Works by Aging Genius

Turner Show - H 2015
Jordan Riefe

Turner Show - H 2015

Paintings from the final 16 years of the artist's life constitute the West Coast's first major exhibition of Turner's work.

In 1835, J.M.W. Turner turned 60 at a time when the average life expectancy was 40 years. A wealthy and renowned artist by then, he might have rested on his laurels but instead embarked on the most daring and aesthetically stunning phase of his career, alienating critics and collectors alike while developing proto-modernist principles that would impact art into the 20th century. J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free, on view at the Getty Center through May 24, covers the last 16 years of the artist’s life, up to his death in 1851 at the age of 76.

“He just didn’t really care anymore about what people thought,” curator Julian Brooks tells The Hollywood Reporter. “The freedom of his brushwork was the thing his colleagues just never understood. They thought many of these were half-finished.”

Some were half-finished, and some weren’t. In “Sunrise With Sea Monsters” (1845), a gauzy cloud of acidic yellow and ash gray envelops a vague creature with sketched-in eyes and mouth. It is precisely this lack of physical clarity combined with his rough, evocative brushwork that has led many to link Turner to abstract artists who didn’t appear on the scene for another 70 years.

“They’re not abstract, and that’s one misapprehension that this exhibition is putting to rest,” says Getty director Timothy Potts. “Instead of defining and representing in a conventional way, it’s much more expressive. It blurs the boundaries between objects that are solid, liquid, the air, the wind, the steam, the smoke, all those other elements of nature in a very expressive and atmospheric way. And that’s what’s endeared him to modern audiences and has inspired many of the great 20th century artists who look back on him as a source of inspiration.”

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When asked by John Ruskin, the leading art critic of the time, to define his style, Turner responded simply: “Atmosphere is my style.” Seldom does the pure light of day remain pure in a Turner painting. Instead, it is shaded and compressed by clouds, fog and steam. Objects are sometimes reduced to mere shadows, horizon lines are lost and sky and sea become one, which describes the Getty show’s centerpiece: “Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth” (1842). In it, a steamship defined as a black shapeless vessel with a single mast is tossed in a swirling vortex of black, gray and blue.

When critics at the time called it a “load of soapsuds and whitewash,” Turner responded: “What would they have? I wonder what they think the sea’s like. I wish they’d been in it.” Ruskin insisted Turner had lashed himself to the mast of a ship for hours during the storm. There’s no evidence to substantiate such a claim, but judging by the painting’s kaleidoscopic perspective, it’s not hard to believe.

Arriving from the Tate Britain where it showed last fall, the exhibit features 35 oil paintings and 27 watercolors, which were essential to the development of Turner’s style. There was little market for watercolors, but Turner found the medium useful on his journeys to Italy, Switzerland, France and Germany, where he executed colorful models to be worked up later, back in his London studio, where they served as samples for oil paintings to be ordered on commission. Watercolors were not a mere marketing tool but a laboratory in which Turner could perfect his use of shade and color to affect depth, perspective and atmosphere in a more abstract manner. He donated 19,000 watercolors to the Tate, but that didn’t keep them from shelling out roughly $7.6 million for “The Blue Rigi, Sunrise” (1842), a celestial landscape of a mountain and lake under an ethereal veil of mist.

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“In a sense, it drove abstraction in oil, it drove a lack of finish and it drove the fact that he felt he could get away with it, that he didn’t have to finish,” says Brooks about watercolor’s influence on Turner. “There are things that characterize them that no one else at the time was doing and no one else would be following up on until you do get into the 20th century.”

Losing motor control to Parkinson’s disease, Turner began drinking heavily late in life. Weight gain and diabetes began to slow him down, and cataracts might have finished his career, if he hadn’t died first. Some have criticized his abundant use of orange and yellow in his later paintings, noting they’re the last colors a person with cataracts can see before they go blind.

“His hand shook he was known for sun-staring, which could make this degeneration worse and give you a reduced use of yellow so you compensate,” says Brooks, pointing to “Regulus” (1828, reworked 1837), named for the Roman general who was punished by having his eyelids removed. Combining the architectural precision of his early works with the pale, blinding light of his final years, it depicts the port of Carthage dominated by a glaring yellow sun.

During the period covered in the show, Turner was keenly aware of mortality, as many colleagues were passing on, including Scottish painter Sir David Wilkie, who is honored by the octagonal canvas “Peace Burial at Sea” (1842), a silhouetted ship with a streak of golden light portraying his friend’s last rites. The painting was met with derision, with some noting it would be just as suitable to hang upside down as right side up.

In light of the decades that followed, it’s easy to look back and see genius where others saw junk. But with Turner coming in and out of style over the years, it took contemporary painters to show us the way. “The incredible thing is somebody like Mark Rothko the reason he gave the Seagram murals to the Tate is because the Tate had Turner,” offers Brooks. “In the end, [David] Hockney, Francis Bacon, all these artists, if you pushed them and say, "Who did you look at?" Turner comes up every time.”