Sunday, 24 January 2010


24/1/10, Tate Britain

A selection of Turner paintings alongside the Old Masters on which he modelled them, or the paintings by contemporaries with whom he competed. Pleasing to report that, for the most part, the Turners on show were superior to their opposite numbers... except when it came to the human figure, where Turner's clumsiness (for such a fine draughtsman and artist) is astonishing.

A few highlights:
A large van der Velde in the first room of a sailing boat in stormy weather, sailing away from the viewer, its triangular sail tilting sharply to one side in the centre of the composition, a few larger ships in the distance; a Turner painted as a companion piece, the boat's sail tilting in the opposite direction, his sea more fluidly painted and more convincingly stormy than the original.

A Claude of Jacob, Laban and his Daughters, figures in a landscape with town in the background; and Turner's Palestrina Composition, a picturesque village in the Italian mountains, so much brighter, bolder, more painterly, a landscape (albeit hot and dusty) which looks really enticing. And was it this one with a very striking composition, a series of vertical divisions? A road between an avenue of trees leading away on the right; a river in the centre; a bridge leading to the town on the right...

Poussin's The Deluge, a rather polite affair of sombre colours and stagey figures; Turner's version all action, turmoil, naked bodies and swirling waters.

Watercolour interiors of churches, borrowed from Piranesi: monumental arches, diagonal shafts of light.

Titian's Virgin and Child, strong, bright colours; Turner's Holy Family an awful daub, dull colours, the figures clunky and unfinished-looking.

Turner's Jessica from Taming of the Shrew, throwing open her Venetian window, dressed in gorgeous reds, her hair luxuriant, the room behind her a swirl of gold. I thought it beautiful and striking. A contemporary critic called it "lady getting out of a large mustard pot", and Wordsworth thought the artist had eaten more chopped liver than was good for him.

Rembrandt's Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, apparently deemed a marvel by contemporaries when first exhibited in London; Turner's Pilate Washing his Hands, in which Pilate is quite invisible in the general explosion of light and colour... but what colour! Gold, red, yellow, white and the sense of people and spectators jostling one another, all piled up amongst the light in the centre of the picture. Infinitely superior, I'd say, to Rembrandt's much more conservative and cautious treatment.

Venice pictures: a Canaletto, precisely drawn but with unconvincing muddy green water with little white wavelets painted on top; Turner's water a spectacular mirror, reflecting the buildings and boats, his sky a pure Bonington blue in an 1833 picture; and in 1841 a fleet of golden boats floating on a golden sea, the buildings in the background becoming pale and insubstantial.

Turner's homage to Raphael: a vast picture looking down from some high point in the Vatican to the piazza in front of St Peter's, Raphael himself and his model/muse, the baker's daughter, small figures standing in a loggia with a collection of R's finest paintings piled up in front of them.

De Loutherberg's Glorious First of June, a brilliant, scary, awe-inspiring picture of battled, detailed and realistic and one of the few instances of one of Turner's models being superior to his version; T's Battle of Trafalgar tries too hard to be monumental, with a single battleship in the centre of the frame, four-square and undeniably impressive but somewhat unconvincing, with sailors from wrecked ships piled up on spars and wreckage in the foreground (rather than all over the place, as in the de Loutherberg).

Constable's fussy, overdone Opening of Waterloo Bridge, a river crammed with boats and waves and red and gold and people; Turner's much more modest ships at sea in Helvoetsluys, shown alongside at the RA... the one with the red buoy added on varnishing day, an understated but attention-grabbing device which completely upstaged the much more ambitious Constable.

Late Turners: all swirls and a blaze of colour and light and semi-abstract, their alleged debts to Claude, Ruysdael and others hanging alongside them hard to spot.

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