Last chance: Turner’s Modern World at Tate Britain

Chris Cotonou

6 August 2021

The gallery’s blockbuster retrospective on the life and shifting politics of English master J.M.W. Turner shouldn’t be misse

6 August 2021 | Chris Cotonou

O

n display until 12 September, you’ve got just over one month left to catch Turner’s Modern World at Tate Britain – and it’s a show you’re going to thank yourself for taking the time to visit. A triumph in the telling of late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century history, and the story behind the artist who saw and documented it all with such a broad, expressive eye, Turner’s work is so exceptional there doesn’t need to be a theme to justify the ticket fee, but curators David Brown, Amy Concannon, James Finch, Sam Smiles and Hattie Spires have tastefully highlighted the ways we can link his modern world with our own.

Turner was born in London in 1775, at the start of the American Revolution. He died in 1851, having lived through considerable social and industrial change; from the arrival of steamboats, trains, and photography, to the Napoleonic Wars and the abolition of slavery. A divisive painter in his own time, his career could be compared to one of his signature brush strokes: distinct at first, marrying the real with the fantastical, but fading as we enter his later, more surreal, period.

Turner’s aesthetic, however, is singular. After this exhibition, you’ll be able to recognise it on sight: the warm mustard palette, the whirling strokes, and the Bruegel (or even Where’s Wally?) narratives hidden in each canvas, revealing themselves as you move closer. Of course, you don’t need to decode these narratives to be thrilled by Turner’s Modern World, but if you want to learn more about the man behind the brush, the Tate does a stellar job of bringing his views and politics to the surface.

While connected with the Romanticism movement, it was the critic John Ruskin who called Turner the first ‘Modern Painter’ thanks to his obsession with technical innovation. On entering the exhibit, visitors are greeted by a series of paintings demonstrating how he placed technology – forges, in particular – into romantic pastoral landscapes. Fire and smoke crackle from his brush in whirlpools of paint, as though emerging from a wand.

The Field of Waterloo (c.1817), JMW Turner, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge 

It’s a vision of industrial Britain that precedes Dickens’ writing and, like the author, many of Turner’s paintings from this era express sympathy with the poor – most notably Leeds (1818) and Ploughing Up Turnips, Near Slough (1809). Although he seems fascinated by change, snippets of life are hidden in each painting, betraying his opinions and politics. Faces of despair on Trafalgar battleships. Weeping widows. Subtle attacks on the monarchy and elegies to the horrors of war. Many Turner paintings contain all the drama of a sweeping, three-hour David Lean film.

Throughout the exhibition, the curators encourage you to consider Turner’s social conscience. (In fact, the guidebook notes focus largely on this aspect of the painter.) The theme builds to a haunting, genuinely upsetting crescendo in The Slave Ship (1840), a painting based on real events. A barge rocks against choppy waters in the distance. Move closer and you can make out chains and limbs in the foreground, bodies disappearing into the sea. The curators’ notes inform you that slaves were commonly thrown overboard, and the painting – engrossing as it is – bleeds with the sound of screams and stormy weather. It is a three-dimensional work of art that absorbs as much as it sickens. With this anti-slavery statement, Turner places himself squarely on the right side of history.

Rain, Steam, and Speed - the Great Western Railway (1844), JMW Turner, The National Gallery

It’s a challenging contrast to the presentation of mainstream Turner (1831 to 1844) that follows: the familiar steamers and trains that bring us to a time much closer to our own. After seeing The Slave Ship, it is easy to forget that Turner’s era is remembered as an optimistic one; a Golden Age of invention. Did those injustices happen as he watched steamboats pass through the River Thames? Or while painting the famous Rain, Steam, and Speed (1844) – a vaporous, humid salad of mechanical movement? After seven rooms dedicated to the flirtation between old and new, Turner’s optimism for invention is replaced with grief. Focus turns to the deaths caused by the open-top ‘innovation’ and, in each subsequent painting, steamers churn black clouds of pollution into the air. By then, it’s already too late. You cannot stop the march of the future.

I revisit Turner’s early paintings of green Wessex fields, the magical fantasy of forge light on a Pembrokeshire night, and the simple, heart-tugging beauty of Chichester Canal. In each there’s a line drawn between the past and the future but it’s in his masterpiece, The Fighting Temeraire (1838), that the future wins definitively. You probably recognise the painting from Q’s entry scene in the James Bond film Skyfall (“A bloody big ship.”). It is the last piece displayed before the final room, which gathers Turner's absurd, criticised later works – fantastic curiosities, but curiosities all the same. A steamer, dark and gushing smoke, drags a divine-looking wooden ship, made famous for its part at Trafalgar, to be torn apart. As the sun sets, a ghostly light surrounds the ship. It’s the true summation of Turner’s later vision, a sentiment we experience in our own time. Sure, the past is glorious and nice to look at, but unless it finds purpose in the modern world, it must die.

The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up (1838), JMW Turner, The National Gallery

I love that painting. I have a habit of going to the National Gallery, where it lives outside of this exhibition, and staring at it for 15 minutes, admiring it from all angles. Even here, surrounded by so many of Turner’s great works, it stands out. The Fighting Temeraire is everything Turner’s Modern World wants to say in one piece. It asks you to reflect on the changes in the artist’s lifetime, and compare them with our own. What do we lose by being ‘modern’?

Perhaps the better question is, when do we arrive at ‘modern’? We seem to be changing at a pace that surpasses even Turner’s time. London’s skyline has transformed so much in the past five years, and it’s set to transform even further in another five. Glass towers replace the city’s heritage architecture; our greatest recent invention, the internet, seems to have divided us more than ever; my watch is as useful as a chocolate teapot; and, if you’re feeling lonely, all you need to do is swipe right. These innovations promise convenience, but at the expense of their own new kind of pollution. Tomorrow, they will be replaced too.

Turner had the foresight to recognise this. His long body of work, beautiful as it is, is there to provide some skepticism about the future. Coming away with this feeling, the exhibition does everything it seeks to achieve. Turner’s Modern World entertains and educates – and puts you squarely in the hands of a master.

Turner's Modern World is on at Tate Britain until 12 September, visit tate.org.uk

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