Sunday 19 July 2015

Art Review: J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free, De Young Museum, San Francisco

This week, the Secret Victorianist was in San Francisco and took the opportunity to see J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free, the first major survey of nineteenth-century painter Turner’s late works (1835-1850), which is currently on view at the De Young museum in the city. The exhibition was originally on show at the Tate Britain in London and was at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles earlier in the year.
Mercury and Argus (pre-1836)
Known for his unrivalled and extraordinary use of light and colour, Turner (1771-1851) was a leading, and controversial, artist in his day. His late works demonstrate his continued inventiveness, as he takes mythical and biblical incidents as subjects for artistic experimentation.

Regulus (reworked 1837)
Take his Mercury and Argus (pre-1836). Rather than as a hundred-eyed guard, Argus is represented as a small indistinct figure and Mercury has few of his usual visual signifiers. Meanwhile, only the small bell around Io’s neck sets her apart from her fellow cattle. For Turner, the idealised pastoral landscape is of greater interest than the mythic plot, although this scene’s bloody aftermath, if recalled, creates a keen point of imaginative contrast. The placement of the beam of light is also more than an excuse to experiment with the play of light. The sun suggests Zeus – the original reason for Io’s transformation. In Regulus (reworked 1837), it is unclear which of the figures is the doomed Roman general preparing to return to Carthage. Yet the blinding sun directly references the fate that will meet him there. 

The Departure of the Fleet (1850)
Similarly, in The Departure of the Fleet (one of the four scenes from Virgil’s Aeneid Turner displayed at his final Royal Academy exhibition in 1850), the figures representing Dido and Aeneas are unimportant – the focus is on the setting sun marking the end of their relationship and how it touches the city the Trojans are leaving behind, soon to be illuminated likewise by its queen’s pyre.

Fire at the Grand Storehouse of the Tower of London (1841)
The exhibition also draws attention to Turner’s unusual working habits – his hasty watercolours Fire at the Grand Storehouse of the Tower of London, painted in 1841 as the fire raged, the significant changes he made to works during ‘Varnishing Days’ at the Royal Academy when other artists were only making the minutest of alterations to their paintings. There is no greater apocryphal story demonstrating Turner’s commitment to his work than that attached to Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1841). Turner, then 67, claimed he was tied to the mast of the boat better to understand and capture the essence of a nocturnal storm.

Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth (1841)
The scale and quality of the exhibition is incredible and leaving Turner’s world behind can be a little stepping back outside into a light of a disappointing and less brilliant sun.

Peace - Burial at Sea (1842)
J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free is on display at the De Young Museum in San Francisco until September 20th - tickets for adults cost $20. Do you know any art exhibitions back in New York you think the Secret Victorianist might enjoy? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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