Unsolicited art review: Turner and the Masters


The Tate Museum has the finest collection of the works of J. M. W. Turner in the world, and from time to time they feel the need to refresh the public with another show to keep proving that Turner deserves the “greatest British artist ever” tag. Back in 2005 this resulted in a hugely interesting show called Turner, Whistler, Monet, which looked at the interactions between the three, and it was a genuine treat. This time around it’s Turner and the Masters, a look at the painters that influenced Turner. At least that’s the intention. And everyone loves it. Well, not quite everyone—only Brian Sewellseems to give it the critical eye it deserves. The Times calls it a “Magnificent and hugely ambitious exhibition.” It’s quoted right there on the Tate website. What it turns into, however, is something completely different, something along the lines of Turner the Competitive Cockney Gnome who Tried to Outdo Everyone without Ever Having an Original Idea.

This is certainly the impression we took away from the show, although I suspect it’s not what was intended. In fact, the real impression we had was the same as the one we had after seeing the Van Gogh and Millet show at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris many years ago—isn’t it interesting that van Gogh used Millet’s pictures as the architecture for many of his own paintings? It was known for years that van Gogh admired Millet, and even included “after Millet” in some of the titles of his works. But still, it was surprising to see how much copying was involved. “They are not copies,” Van Gogh told his brother, Theo, “but translations into another language.” Well, maybe, but after wandering through several rooms at the Musee d’Orsay, you’d actually be hard pressed to say that most of them weren’t copies, even if van Gogh transformed the scene with an entirely different sense of colour and a much more aggressive brushwork.

Van Gogh was at least lavish in his praise of Millet (”Millet is father Millet…counsellor and mentor in everything for young artists”), and never denied his debt. Turner, on the other hand, comes off poorly in this show, which was probably not the intent of the organizers. Yes, Turner was a prodigious painter, and the show concentrates on a small percentage of his output. But still, nearly every painting by Turner is paired with the painting that he was modelling in one way or another, and very often they are direct copies, with the only difference being Turner’s different use of colour and, again, his distinctive brushwork. And while he knew how to compose a picture as well as anyone, there are some pictures where the perspective just doesn’t make sense. And of course, like Bonnard, he just can’t paint people, a fact usually overlooked—or just ignored.

Now, this is always interesting—no artist works in isolation, there are always influences, and much of the fun of art appreciation is figuring out what those are. The fact that Whistler and Monet were friends shouldn’t be a surprise, but it’s something you normally don’t think about. We think of artists as solitary beings, but even if that has some truth in terms of their lifestyles, it can’t be true in terms of where their art comes from. The line from Millet to van Gogh couldn’t be more direct. And it is interesting to see what Turner derived from, say, Rembrandt, or Watteau, of Cuyp, or the painter that Turner felt himself most in competition with—Claude. Turner often is a great artist. But here in London he’s not only a great artist, but the greatest of all time, it seems. One gets that impression, anyway—from the time Ruskin started trumpeting him as the greatest British artist ever, the art establishment in the UK has shown no signs of disputing this. Turner, like the Impressionists, has become an industry. Sewell, who has a reputation for not liking much of anything, has some words of praise for the show, but he also captures it about right, warts and all:

Turner belonged to a generation of artists whose work was deliberately rooted in the past, who could be measured by the comparison that revealed how much they had retained, how much rejected, and how much moved on by adding something new and of their own that might suggest that they had exceeded the successes of their mentors. Turner painted not in slavish imitation but in rivalry, and two centuries on it is easier to see where he matched Claude’s subtleties and Rembrandt’s bravura and where he failed utterly — for this is an exhibition not only of Turner’s occasional sublimities but of dogged recapitulation that is dull and failure that is ludicrous.

And that seems about right. When Turner was good, he was as good as anyone. But he often wasn’t that good—and yet somehow we’re supposed to ignore the fact that he often painted bad pictures.

The show brings up two reservations. First, if the show is representative of Turner’s output, it’s an extraordinarily derivative output, without a single new idea until very late in Turner’s career. I suspect that’s an unfair portrait of Turner—he was prolific, and this is just a sampling. But the Tate is telling us it’s an extremely important sampling, and there’s nothing in the show to tell you otherwise. Turner painted what other artists were also painting, and we’re supposed to take away that, well, he was Turner, that’s al you really need to know. It’s a bad analogy, I know, but I’ve been looking for a place to use it ever since I saw the movie Mama Mia (the biggest grossing movie of all time in the UK, amazingly enough)—my main reaction was “Who knew Abba wrote so many bad songs?” Sewell is absolutely right—there are an awful lot of bad paintings by Turner here, especially the ones on mythological subjects. And to pretend otherwise is just silly, and a bit insulting.

Second, it’s a chronological show, so you can see how Turner developed as an artist. Yes, he had many skills, but it wasn’t until he was old that he became Turner. The Turner we think about, and whose art still stuns, is the Turner who lapsed into pure light and atmosphere. And he didn’t start doing these paintings until he was an old man (or relatively one). Turner was bon in 1775. And those extraordinary maritime paintings, with the storms, and the clouds, and the spray, and the sun—the ones that really do take your breath away—those are from the 1840s. And while Turner was acknowledged as a major painter by his contemporaries even before he was painting these stunning seascapes, some explication of how Turner got to this style would have been appreciated, other than the bland comments we’re greeted with in the narrative.

Still, it’s a very interesting show, worth seeing. For one thing, it’s not often that the competitive nature of genius is acknowledged, and it’s refreshing to see it so openly acknowledged. And Turner was competitive, absolutely. And it is interesting to study the comparisons to see where Turner was successful, and where he failed. Plus there’s the bonus of seeing some exceptionally good art that doesn’t normally show up in London. The Rembrandts are at treat, for example, including The Old Mill, normally at home at The National Gallery in Washington. And Claude—well, you can see why it was that Turner targeted him as the one to beat. And there’s a small masterpiece—The White House at Chelsea, pictured just above—by Thomas Girtin, a friend of and (in the spirit of the show) competitor to Turner. Girtin died when he was quite young—in 1802, at age 27. And the show quotes Turner’s comment that “had Tom Girtin lived I should have starved.” Looking at this little gem, surrounded by dozens of larger and more grandiose pictures by Turner and others, you understand exactly what Turner meant.

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2 replies »

  1. Outstanding review, and one that touches on a subject near and dear to my heart – influence. You’re right – competition never seems to get discussed in these contexts, and it should.

    Then again, I read a review like this and reflect on my own life here in the US and feel I’m awash in triviality. If nothing else, you’ve reminded me that I need to get to the gallery more often (although I doubt Denver often has shows to match what you can see on a daily basis in London).

  2. No, probably not, but Denver is a big city, and does have a major art museum, and a Museum of Nature and Science, and a Firefighter’s Museum! What more do you need? Plus you’ve got a university or two there, right? They always have museums. Then there’s the Colorado Railroad Museum–maybe you get to climb on things. I’m looking at the list here ( Boy, you’ve got tons of museums! The Forney Museum of Transportation. What’s that? I bet it’s neat though. And look–The Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum. I bet I know what that’s all about. Still. Maybe it’s better than you think. Things to do in Denver when you’re bored.