Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Oh Master and Commander (Reflections on ‘Turner and the Masters’ at Tate Britain)

The current exhibition at Tate Britain, Turner and the Masters, might have been aptly re-titled Turner Verses the Masters. Such was the scale and intention of his ambition. Turner not only set out to learn from the grand masters of European Art who had preceded him but also to better them. A grand vision indeed if not a little intimidating to those of us who seek to follow after his painterly example.

In the first room we are greeted by an impressive duo of nautical paintings, the first by grand master Willem van d Velde the Younger, Ships in a Stormy Sea (below top), and it’s companion by Turner painted in response and similar scene depicting fishing boats struggling against the swell of the waters to haul in their large catch of fish. Turner’s version (below bottom) is a bigger, bolder version of van de Velde’s original. He mirrors van de Velde’s composition but the seas are more choppy and the clouds loom heavier creating a far more dramatic effect than the original. Turner’s painting was commissioned to stand shoulder to shoulder with van de Velde’s first and I can’t but help sense there’s more than a little of “whatever you can do, I can do better” in Turner’s approach.

There’s more than youthful arrogance here. The depth and endurance of Turner’s practice show a genuine respect for the painterly tradition he was building on and there are moments of delight when Turner exposes his love of the masters through his careful study of their craft. His moonlit landscapes are more than homage to Rubens, for example, and likewise his extraordinary sublime landscapes that pay tribute to Poussin and Rosa whilst successfully building on what they achieved. This is, after, part of the artist’s task: to learn from those who have gone before us, learn from their mistakes, build on their successes and bless (or enlarge) the good in their vision towards new and truthful ways of seeing the world.

The exhibition guide opens with, “It is impossible to be an artist without engaging with the past.” As a contemporary painter and Christian I couldn’t agree more. It may be a little unfair to generalise but it has not been my experience of art schools in this country to educate emerging artists of today in the visual language of the past. To my shame I went through the first two years of art college thinking Titian was pronounced with a hard “t” in the middle, making him sound more like a 70s porn star than grand master. To the shame of my college, I was never corrected. Today we might read Turner’s vision as arrogance (and perhaps it was) but to my generation who are taught to assimilate rather than study the past, who are encouraged to express themselves rather than become aware of the heritage to which they partake in simply by putting paint to canvas and who don’t even know how to pronounce the name of the masters let alone know what made them so great I think Turner’s vision is a much needed example.

So who wins? If this is Turner verses the masters I would say that Turner more than holds his own. His sublime landscapes, moonlit scenes, architectural interiors and stormy seascapes, in my view, hold fast against de Velde, Richard Wilson, Salvador Rosa, Claude Lorrain and the others (no one paints frothy storms like Turner). It’s his figurative painting that, to me, is less convincing in the fight. In my opinion his Holy Family is no match for Titian’s Virgin and Child and his portrayal of Jessica from the Merchant of Venice seems flat and lifeless compared to the glowing brilliance of Rembrandt’s Girl at a Window (Turner's critics compared his colour palette unfavourably - if not unfairly - to a pot of mustard). Not to criticise Turner but rather compare his work with the masters... at times, the paintings Tate have selected seem more ape than able but as an artist myself who wants to build on the traditions of the past as well as navigate the murky waters painting today I would happily settle for a little ape if only to nurture a little able of my own.

(after writing these words I read Gavin McGraths review of the same exhibition which is well worth a read – linked to the right)

1 comment:

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