|J M W Turner, The Lagoon Near Venice, at Sunset, 1840|
The Turner exhibition at the Musée Jacquemart-André is a pleasure from beginning to end. People used to visiting the intimate rooms of this museum will welcome the current social distancing measures. Never before have I had the opportunity to be alone, or at worst, with one or two others in the room. It was a treat.
|J M W Turner, Blair Atholl, Looking towards Killiecrankie, 1801-2|
From the beginning we see Turner painting the weather, the time of day, the seasons, the elements as they are reflected in the air. We see the wind blowing in paint. In those moments that would make Turner's work so controversial in his time, in the places where he left the canvas bare, we see some of his most emotional moments. The watercolours follow Turner's ongoing preoccupation with light, seeing him working over and over to illuminate the whole painting from a single source. Even from the beginning, it is clear that Turner is not interested in objects or human figures, even narrative. They are diminished, overwhelmed by the weather, the natural environment and, of course, colour as light. Turner never goes so far as to remove the human figures altogether, he can't quite take us to a point where he eschews representation, but in the watercolours and eventually the oil paintings, we can see the beginnings of abstraction in art. In Blair Atholl, vue en direction de Killicranckie, vers 1801-02, for example, streaks of light, clouds blown in the wind, their shadows, the gentle movement of water, animate the paper surface.
|J M W Turner, Venice: San Giorgio Maggiore - Early Morning, 1819|
Then Turner travels to Venice. Like so many artists throughout history, Venice changes everything for Turner. In Venice he sees the light, humidity and the sultry atmosphere reflected in the lagoon in Venise: San Giorgio Maggiore-tot le matin, 1819. In Venice, thanks to the water, Turner learns about luminosity, transparency and he manages to capture the something essential that he has been looking for. Venice marks the shift to abstraction. In front of the Venice paintings, we realize that the water helps him to discover new depths to the relationship between colour and light. Twenty five years later when he goes back to Venice on his world travels, in a work such as Venise: une vue imaginaire de l'Arsenal vers 1840, the heat, the lethargy, the heaviness of the Venetian atmosphere is everywhere expressed in the orange and yellow of the sun-scorched buildings and their reflections. The straw-like lines of the boats, Gondalas, moorings and processions, indistinct from their reflections in the blue water of La Piazzetta avec la céremonie du Doge époussant la mer, vers 1835 cry out to the viewer, as if we are there, participating in the festivities. The sounds, colours, the air, wind and sun are more important than any figures we might be able to be identified.
|J M W Turner, Yacht Approaching the Coast (1840-45)|
In the final room of the exhibition we see some of his finest oil paintings. Most interesting is their continued reach for abstraction. The line between sea and shore has become an idea, something that is no longer clearly defined in the image. In works such as Yacht Approaching the Coast, we see the signature of Turner's late oil on canvas paintings: the pulling of the viewer into the vortex of an agitated sea. If Venice guides Turner to the marriage of painted colour and light, it's the seascape at Margate that ultimately leads him to the near dissolution of form and the blurring of all structuring sight lines in painting.