Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Exhibition review: Turner and the Masters at Tate Britain

Turner and the Masters is an exhibition about JMW Turner's engagement with past and present masters of the art of painting.

It closes on 31st January so if you've not seen it yet time to make plans! It's then travelling to the Grand Palais in Paris and the Prado in Madrid after it closes.
It is impossible to be an artist without engaging with the art of the past
If you know your artists, then this is one of those exhibitions where you keep thinking how amazing it is to see quite so many paintings from recognised Masters in one room. Artists included in the exhibition are: Claude Lorrain, Poussin, Titian, Rembrandt, Canaletto, Watteau, Ruisdel, van der Velde, Constable and Girtin. Works are displayed well and in some cases works are reunited here for the first time in hundreds of years and others have never been seen together before in this light.

I went to the exhibition last Friday and am planning to go back before it closes. However although I came to it late in the exhibition run I'm really glad I saw it after I did all the research for the Art of the Landscape project - as the exhibition made a lot more sense to me as a result. The exhibition is predominantly about landscapes but it seemed to me to assume a fair degree of knowledge about art movements of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. The focus of the narrative in the exhibition is on Turner and, despite the title of the exhibition, I think I might have missed the point about quite how significant some of the other artists are.

I did however try out mine bit of emulation!

(Above) Palestrina - by Turner
1828, exhibited 1830
Tate Britain
(Below) Palestrina (after Turner) by me!

8 x 10", pencil and coloured pencils in Moleskine sketchbook
Katherine Tyrrell

Rivalry and competition

The Tate says the exhibition is about rivalry, obsession, jealousy and is the story of Turner's battle to outdo all other artists. I always knew that Turner was a very ambitious artist and wanted to succeed but I hadn't realised that he was quite so competitive. You can see the Curators dicussing Turner in this link to the Tate's website

This exhibition is certainly about Turner's desire not just to be as good as other painters but also to be better than them. However, the rivalry and competition which exists seems to be entirely in Turner's head. For one thing the artists he is competing with are for the most part safely dead!

However one artist who was not dead was Constable - born in the same year as Turner - and who Turner saw as a great rival. At the Royal Academy exhibition in 1832, Constable's The Opening of Waterloo Bridge and Turner's Helvoetsluys were originally exhibited beside each other in the Royal Academy in 1832. Turner upstaged Constable by adding a dash of red to his own painting at the last minute – which made Cosntable's painting look too fussy and 'overcooked' and left Constable was none too pleased. John Humphreys explains why - and discusses the exhibition with Graham Dixon Wright and Tim Marlow - well worth a listen.

It's interesting that when it comes to his contemporaries he knows when he's beaten and also how to triumph at the line as it were.

The exhibition includes a very fine watercolour painting by Thomas Girtin who's an extremely fine watercolourist. The White House at Chelsea (1820) is one which 'stuck' in turner's memory. The white house is in fact paper which is completely untouched by paint. He tried to use the motif of a white building in his own paintings - but never to my mind as successfuly as Girtin did. Turner is quoted as having said
if Tom Girtin has lived, I would have starved
JMW Turner
In terms of landscape, the exhibition highlights how he strove both to be true to nature, to emulate the Masters and at the same time how he tackled and tested conventions about what you could and could not do.

The most significant difference between Turner's art and that of the Masters he hoped to match and better is Turner's painterly handling of both paint and brushes. It's really interesting to see how his artistic style differs from those he tries to emulate. When comparing him to Claude Lorrain, to my mind he holds his own although Turner can look a bit more brash at times. Lorrain has more subtlety and smoother paint surfaces. Turner has more drama and painterly brushwork.

Having worked out who the signifcant artists were in terms of the development of landscape painting and the seventeenth century ' golden age' of dutch painting. I wasn't surprised to see Rembrandt or Cuyp included in the exhibition.

What I was surprised to see were a couple of artists who focused on figurative paintings of groups of people. My own Simon Cowell conclusion is that Turner should definitely stick to landscape painting and leave figure painting to other people. There is simply no contest when it comes to going up against the likes of Dutch artists Rembrandt and David Teniers the Younger(1610-1690) and Turner's contemporary and competitor the Scottish painter David Wilkie (1785-1841).

You can explore the exhibition and its different themes on the Tate website - although mainly in text. I think it's a very great shame that the Tate hasn't made an online website to display the works better for educational purposes. In this day and age it really seems like a great waste not to take the opportunity to do so - we all know what all the paintings look a great deal better in the gallery then they ever do online so I don't see it having a great impact on visitor numbers.

Turner and the Masters is at Tate Britain until 31 January 2010 (open daily, 10.00-17.50; last admission 17.00). Below are some of the other reviews of the exhibition

If you can't get to it you can decide for yourselves which battles Turner wins, and which he loses in Turner versus the Masters - you decide!

You can find out more about Turner on my information site JMW Turner - Resources for Artists


The Art of the Landscape

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