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Around the galleries

Turner in his element

— March 2012

Associated media

JMW Turner Blair Atholl, looking towards Killiecrankie, c. 1801, Gouache and watercolour on paper

Jeff Fendall reports on ‘Turner and the Elements’ at Turner Contemporary, Margate, UK

One of the complaints about the initial exhibition, when the Turner Contemporary opened in April 2011, was that there was only a single Turner painting on display, against many from six contemporary artists. With the current exhibition ‘Turner and the Elements’ that balance is – almost – rectified, for it consists of approximately 90 of Turner’s works, mostly on loan from Tate Britain in London.  Nevertheless, they are all crammed into two-and-a-half rooms (the half being the corridor between them) whilst three other rooms are given over to works by Hamish Fulton, the ‘walking’ artist.

It is not so much that the paintings are cramped, because many are tiny, just a few inches deep and wide, but that this necessitates viewing them up close. For many, that will not be possible with the crowds this exhibition will undoubtedly draw. Much of Turner’s genius will be lost, because it manifests itself so well in his miniature watercolours. To make matters worse, more than 60 examples of all the four traditional ‘elements’ – fire, water, earth, air – are hung in the one room, while just 25 occupy the other room under the title ‘Fusion’.

The exhibition is fortuitous for the TC, since it was being organized before the new gallery opened, but not in this country. It is a collaboration between the Bucerius Kunst Forum, Hamburg, where it showed between June and September 2011, and Muzeum Narodowe, Krakow, which held it from October to January.  Put together by Ortrud Westheider and Inés Richter-Musso, both of the Bucerius, the present exhibition in Margate runs until 13 May.

An example of the viewing difficulties is Venice: Fireworks on the Molo (1840, gouache, watercolour & chalk on paper: Tate). It is just 22.8 x 30 cm. (9” x 11.75”) and is a night scene, the better to show the firework display on the Molo, the gondola pier at St Mark’s Square. The sky and buildings are by and large dark, except where they reflect the fireworks’ light, and this contrast creates a problem for the viewer unless they can get up close and peer carefully.

Easier to see is Blair Atholl: Looking towards Killiecrankie, which measures 55.6 x 78.2 cm. (22” x 31”). The scene would be unrecognizable today, since there was no road or railway cutting through the village when Turner created the gouache and watercolour painting on paper in 1801. Representing the ‘Earth’ element, this fine early landscape shows the slopes of the Grampian mountains in the rain, subtly handled by the artist.

For some reason the editors have chosen a truncated version of The New Moon (1840, oil on mahogany, Tate) as the cover of the exhibition catalogue, with a few inches chopped off each end. For Turner it is a most unusual work. For one thing it includes human figures, rarely found in his landscapes. Secondly, its alternative title demonstrates his sense of humour: ‘I’ve lost my boat! You shan’t have your hoop!’ Certainly the waxing crescent moon does appear at the top of this daytime scene, but it is primarily of a family, mother and child to far left, child and two dogs chasing across the sands towards two or three more figures paddling in the water. These mid-distance figures are set within the enormous sweep of Margate sands – or so Victoria Pomery, director of the Turner Contemporary, assured me. The real painting is of those sands and sea blending into a summer-clouded sky of identical hues, yet subtly woven to distinguish between them, with ribbons of blue and the hint of distant buildings. It is a stunning achievement, but again just 65.4 x 81.3 cm (25.5” x 32”).

The diminutive Ramsgate (1826–8, pencil and watercolour on paper, Tate) is just 16 x 23.2 cm (6” x 9”) and is a work of extraordinary detail and delicacy, representing the ‘water’ element.  We often think of Turner as a painter of the sea, and here are the lighthouse, the jetty, boats and masts and sails, and in the foreground the storm-tossed vessel thrust upward on the crest of a threatening wave. Only from a distance of less than twelve inches can you come to appreciate the fineness, the brushwork, the draughtsmanship, the colouring, the consummate skill of the painter. It is something the passing jostling crowd will be bound, sadly, to miss.

Turner is often spoken of as a proto-impressionist, and much of what is on display here will attest to that. But more: in the room entitled ‘Fusion’ is a selection of his later works that might be more readily classified as ‘abstract’. Certainly they may display the forces and effects of nature, but in works such as  Colour Beginning (c. 1820; watercolour on paper; 33.5 x 42.3 cm (13” x 16.5”); Tate); or Rocks on the Meuse (c.1839, gouache and watercolour on paper, 14 x 19 cm/5.5” x 7.5” Tate); or A Storm over the Riga (c. 1844, watercolour on paper, 25 x 37.1 cm/10” x 14.5”, Tate) you might well be forgiven for thinking this was Kandinsky or Macke or Klee.

I hope I haven’t put anyone off with my criticism of the hanging of this exhibition, because it is truly worth going out of your way to see. Just choose a rainy Tuesday or Wednesday (the gallery is closed on Mondays) rather than the weekend, and hope you are the only one there.


Jeff Fendall MA
Isle of Thanet, Kent
Independent art historian

Media credit: © Tate, London 2011

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