Late Turner: Painting Set Free
Published on 8th October 2014
Things, it seems, begin to change as we get older. We forget (more often) where we parked, crows somehow imprint their feet on our face, and some of us are visited by ‘Unexpected Leaks’ (Registered Trademark: TENA). Not often do we associate old age with freedom—though, for all I spend on public transport, I’m pretty psyched to get my Freedom Pass in 33 years’ time. The folks at Tate Britain, however, would like to change our ideas about old age with their newest exhibition of works by J.M.W. Turner, entitled ‘Late Turner: Painting Set Free’.
If you haven’t heard of Turner before, he’s one of Britain’s best-loved artists whose career showcased a mastery of light and colour, of atmosphere and drama, painting cities, the countryside and the sea. Never was this more apparent than after his 60th birthday when he underwent a liberation of sorts, a “creative flowering”. During his last 15 years, Turner painted some of his boldest, most beautiful, and most controversial art. (I mean, when was the last time you tweeted about your latest work and a fan described it as “indicative of mental disease”?)
An acceptance of death’s approach has always been influential for creatives. We saw it at ‘Matisse: Cut-Outs’, and we’ll see it at ‘Rembrandt: The Late Works’ (at the National Gallery from October 15). Turner greeted mortality with a freedom to experiment with new formats, new paint media and riskier techniques. For example, paintings of his favourite city, Venice, betray a deeper lucidity of sight and appreciation—appreciation that is only felt when you realise you’ll never see a loved place or person again.
Of the six rooms, nowhere is Turner’s painting freer than in room four, presented by Tate Britain as “an exhibition within the exhibition”:
Walking into a dimly lit square room, I am struck by Turner’s square paintings, all nine hanging together for the first time, almost incandescent under the minimal spotlighting, floating on walls of a blue-black abyss. And so, it seems that Instagram—the Marmite-flavoured app which forces our photos to be square, which tempts us with those eye-popping filters—was invented by Turner in 1840. Certainly the effect is the same: A moment in time captured in paint, crafted from Turner’s sensational predilection for certain colours, misty tones, lightings—all fighting for a bigger canvas, a wider viewing angle, but bound within a square frame. They carry the same wonderful impact and immediacy as the over-saturated, hyper-real photographs on our Instagram feeds.
You’ll probably have to take a moment for your eyes to adjust after this exhibition. And perhaps, no matter our age, we’ll have been inspired by the benefits that Turner found in his later years, and leverage them today.
What we can learn from Late Turner:
- Observe everything: Turner had his head on a swivel, soaking up everything around him like a sponge, especially natural beauty.
- Record everything: In addition, he took pains to sketch “continuously and rapidly” the salient details (atmosphere, colour, light) of everything he found interesting.
- Travel as much as you can: Turner was an O.A.P. (Older Adventurous Person); he travelled light, often alone, throughout Europe. And all done before planes and cushy Saga holidays.
- Vary your routes: Turner loved the opportunity to see things from a new perspective, meaning that, even as an old man, he would go out of his way along a path that would afford him a unique viewpoint.
- Go to the seaside, a lot: All that fresh air, that salty taste on your tongue; the sea inspired Turner with its boundless power and ever-changing nature.
- Upset convention: Aged 60+, Turner effectively asked the 19th century artistic establishment, “Why not paint this way?”, and found there to be no good answer. So he did it, and arguably fathered Impressionism.
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