Thursday 24 September 2009

Turner and the Masters

Turner and the Masters is at Tate Britain until Jan 31. It hangs works by Turner among works by the painters he was “influenced” by. Or rather, that he painted “in the manner of” in a deliberate attempt to be considered as one of their rank. But that was how you played the art game in those days.

What, Turner our homegrown genius, play the game? Turner the proto-Impressionist, copy the old masters? Turner who painted in a way we approve of long before it was fashionable, spin his own reputation?

Matthew Collings in Saturday’s Guardian reviewed the show and unpicked the way we see Turner.

The artists Turner wished to be seen with in public were Cuyp, Claude Lorrain, Poussin, Salvator Rosa (immensely popular in the 18th century – time he was reappraised), Rembrandt, Rubens, Ruisdael, Titian, Veronese and Watteau. Says Collings, Turner "was a working-class man who achieved greatness in art, but owned a pub and had no friends … He had two mistresses and never married.”

In Turner’s day you were meant to copy the old masters. Still-life and landscape were at the bottom of the tree, next up was portraiture, but top was history painting “big scenes from real history, or … mythological or biblical dramas”. (Which look ridiculous to us today.) The show is “really social history with art as the focus”.

For the last 50 years Turner “has been widely thought of as a genius of ‘painterly’ painting… from this viewpoint he is valued as a sort of artistic crystal-ball gazer, anticipating Monet’s impressionist scenes… he came back into vogue in the 1960s because of the rise of abstract expressionism. The change in popular opinion occurred with a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1966 called Turner: Imagination and Reality. Because the selection of works was deliberately weighted in favour of his later period, when lines become blurred and there are fewer enclosed shapes, a new image of Turner emerged as a mystic prophet of modernism – an image that has remained intact in the popular imagination ever since.”

It should be a fascinating show, revealing not just the sources of Turner’s inspiration but also our own sheep-like tendencies to follow the latest fashionable opinion. And Turner really was a genius.

Sheep by Poussin

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