My dad inquired with me the content of the ‘Turner and The Masters’ exhibition before I came to view it; rightly pointing out that Rembrandt (the featured artist he knew most of) was practising in a whole different century to Turner. Turner, 1775-1851, is a relative contemporary compared to some the artists he has been aligned along the picture rail with. The curators were surely voicing a quite particular opinion, for it is unusual for a retrospect revolving around Turner, to spread over as long a period.
Are these ‘other’ works simply background or context? Partly, they speak of the battle Turner had with his art to reach bars set by the ruling governance of art - felt to be the Royal Academy. Or, are they works that serve to elevate Turner’s as masterpieces? - Such bias would not be unexpected in favour of the Englishman for this exhibition has been found at the Tate Britain. Or is a further comment being made? On view simultaneously as though synchronised, is the Turner Prize; suggesting that the quest of the modern British artist, is to become the new Turner.
Do I think that Turner could be one of the greatest amongst the masters? Have I today seen a painting that to me rivals Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride? What is it that determines a great artist? Is it one: a few stunning paintings that alone can bring recognition – such as that above mentioned portrait of a couple and Rembrandt’s self-portraits, and Johannes Vermeer’s The Girl with a Pearl Earring. Or, is it a body of work that collectively proves the strength of a great creator? For which I would say Van Gogh can be categorised. Eugenie Scrase ‘s final piece for the Saatchi gallery Trunkated Trunk was good, (isn’t it uncanny though that her surname is a homophone for Eugene disgrace?); but Matt Clark was consistently good and industrious, and so for this I was glad he was awarded some recognition…
I saw a wider ranging Turner, in style, confidence and in subject. Subjects of genre scenes and religious tales, were narrated by the as not being pursued for long, after the discovery that these subjects were not his forte. It was only the latter pieces that made him worthy of being possibly one of the most loved artists. There were five paintings that struck me as the work of an artistic genius, distinct as Turner and in a separate echelon to his contemporaries, and rivals from the written-of past. These were nearly all found in the final room and include the populous Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth 1842, which displays his artistic Romantic drama; and competence at capturing times, settings and lights that warm more than our eyes but our bellies.
In format and by title, you would presume that the curator’s aim was to crown Turner as the ultimate artist. Yet, in the mainly battlefields formed with the abutting of paintings, (like would have been seen at the Royal Academy in his own day – and this is what is being simulated), I often decided I much preferred or admired the work that was not Turner’s. Most obvious, was this in his genres painting, when he was pitted against his contemporaries David Wilkie and David Teniers. In the landscapes of Venice, the Venetian Canaletto was, generally agreed, the best. Turner’s lacked excitement, real accuracy, which could abolish disapproval from lack of excitement, and thus anything of real interest. However, the later painting, Venice from the Porch of the Madonna Della Salute, 1835 is a masterpiece from Turner. The stunning way the gondolier hovers over the water, as though its oarsman is levitating both ends in a crisp layer of air. It is on par, with Canletto’s precise technique, though most would probably favour Turner’s more textural style that would is commonly viewed freer and less pedantic.
My favourite works from the exhibition were Rembrandt’s, as I remain exhilarated from my experience of his works in Amsterdam in November. That said, I cannot doubt the innovative brushwork, and believe his most matured style is in many paintings unrivalled.
‘Turner and The Masters’ is at the Tate Britain until 31 January 2010