On Saturday I went to see “Turner and the Masters” at Tate Britain, which seems to have unanimously glowing reviews so far, and I am completely in agreement with them. I took pages of notes so will attempt to condense them here! The premise of the exhibition is that Turner engaged publicly with other “masters”, learning from them, building upon their work, testing the conventions of art and even competing with his contemporaries. His paintings are displayed alongside those of other artists including Rembrandt, Poussin, Claude and Constable, to name but a few, and the effect is remarkably enlightening.
Where Turner paints intentionally from a similar subject as another artist, such as Dutch Boats in a Gale, a companion piece for van d Velde’s 1672 Ships in a Stormy Sea, he demonstrates a modern-seeming boldness of light and colour which gives the picture not only its appeal but also a unique appearance of Turner-ness. Not that he always improves on the original; his companion piece to de Loutherbourg’s Glorious First of June, The Battle of Trafalgar, whilst emanating a sombre tone appropriate to the loss of life of the battle, also contains less life and movement than the original.
Even when actually copying a painting (the traditional Royal Academy method of learning) Turner’s versions remain entirely Turner’s. The exhibition is arranged so that one can see the effect of, for example, Rembrandt’s use of lit areas in gloom, in Turner’s works, and I was particularly struck by the pairing of Rembrandt’s The Rest on the Flight into Egypt (right) with Turner’s Moonlight: A study at Millbank (top left).
The exhibition shows, more than anything, Turner’s development as an artist, something which would not be possible without the inclusion of the picutres which influenced him. From Piranesi he learned perspective, we see; from Claude, classical structuring of his work, and from his contemporaries, he learned the importance of colour and simplicity. Turner was well-known for use the “varnishing days” at the RA to slightly alter his paintings, which is clear from the pairing here of Turner’s Helvoetsluys (left) with Constable’s The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, exhibited together in 1832 and reunited here for the first time, where it becomes obvious that Turner’s restrained use of colour (including the red spot in the foreground added at the last minute) and clean lines triumph over Constable’s detail. As he said himself, “atmosphere is my style”.
Conscious of the art of past masters, the work of his contemporaries, and even of his legacy, this is an exhibition which shows Turner the working artist in a new light. As John Ruskin, possibly his biggest fan, wrote, “consider for yourself whether there was ever any other painter who could strike such an octave. Whether there has been or not, in other walks of art, this power of sympathy is unquestionably in landscape unrivalled….”