Late Turner – Painting Set Free, Tate Britain
Turner did not take much of a retirement. In 1851, the year he died, he missed the annual exhibitions; but the previous year, aged seventy-five, there he was at the Royal Academy, with four large oils to display. During the final fifteen years of the artist’s life, he continued to work at much the same rate as he always had. There may have been a slow down after 1845, but as Tate Britain’s current exhibition shows, these were not the twilight years. Late Turner – Painting Set Free, which runs until January next year, is a hefty exhibition and the first of its kind. There has been a constant flow of Turner shows in recent years – Turner and Venice, Turner and the Sea, Turner Whistler Monet, Turner Monet Twombly – but there has never been a Turner the OAP. Victorian biographers and critics might have been surprised at today’s theme (one nineteenth century artist even described Turner’s later work as “repulsive”), but for the twenty-first century visitor, the current display includes some of the painter’s most well-known and well-loved works.
This is not, however, an exhibition designed only to showcase the artist’s post-1835 knock-outs and eulogise one of our so-called ‘Great Britons’. Rather it is an academic display, devised to make the visitor think, learn and reassess. Turner the Impressionist, Turner the proto-abstract painter, these twentieth century interpretations of the artist have no place in this show. And stripped of such reductive labels, it is a real-time Turner who emerges, a Turner whose pieces can be viewed as both modern and traditional, while remaining untainted by references to the future.
It all started in the 1890s when art historians began to look at Turner’s later output, much of which was incomplete, in a new light. Continue reading