The twilight of the gods has come to Tate Britain. Like a Wagnerian opera painted in mist and fire, the late works of JMW Turner rise from silence to throbbing power, wheel out their visionary leitmotifs, and crash in apocalyptic frenzy.
Wagner and Turner have a great deal in common. Both are artists of myth on a grand scale who wallow in magnificent ambiguities and lashings of atmosphere. In Turner’s 1837 painting The Parting of Hero and Leander, a lover is drowned in a boiling roiling sea while heavenly fire glows red above a Greek city that hubristically totters on a mountaintop. How Wagnerian is that? It is all an allegory of doomed desire, a grandiose illumination of Turner’s long, unreadable poem The Fallacies of Hope (again like Wagner, he wrote his own libretto).
In late 19th- and early 20th-century France the paintings of Turner hovered alongside Wagner’s preludes in the imaginations of artists from Monet to Matisse, who learned from them how colour could be expressive, atmospheric, even abstract. Is Turner then the father of modern art? Do his woozy vortices of light usher in a new way of seeing the world – our way of seeing the world?
Art historians smile knowingly at that idea, pointing out that Turner is a man of the Romantic age whose art is dense with historical and mythological information, making it anachronistic to think he ever paints for painting’s sake.
Late Turner – Painting Set Free drowns such quibbles under a flood of raw wild paint. We’ve seen all kinds of Turners portrayed by recent exhibitions of his works, from Turner the student of the Old Masters to Turner the nautical cove. Here at last is the Turner who matters – the man who invented modern painting.
The old cliche that Turner anticipated the Impressionists fades away in this exhibition. Not because it’s untrue, but simply because it is so inadequate to his true influence. If you can see Monet’s Impression: Sunrise foreshadowed in his watercolours you can also see how Salvador Dalí and Max Ernst echo Turner’s more surreal moments – his trees that float in the sky like glowing jellyfish, his encrustations of edible-seeming paint – and how the American artist Cy Twombly reinterprets his classical scenes in paintings that are great lyrical sighs of abstraction and graffiti.
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