Turner’s Modern World Explored At Tate Britain


Tate Britain will present a landmark exhibition, this Autumn, titled Turner’s Modern World. The show will be dedicated to the British artist JMW Turner (1775-1851) and explore what it meant to be a modern artist during his lifetime.

The exhibition will  reflect Turner’s interest in social reform and his changing attitudes towards politics, labour and slavery

Turner’s Modern World will reveal how Britain’s most celebrated landscape painter found new ways to capture the momentous events of his day, from technology’s impact on the natural world to the dizzying effects of modernisation on society. The exhibition will bring together 160 key works, including significant loans as well as paintings and rarely seen drawings from the rich holdings of Tate’s Turner Bequest.

Turner's Modern World
Turner’s Modern World

Turner lived through turbulent times. Britain was at war for much of his life, while revolutions and independence struggles took place around the world. He witnessed the explosion of finance capitalism as well as the transition from sail to steam and from manpower to mechanisation.

Political reform, as well as scientific and cultural advances, transformed society and shaped the modern world. Living and working at the peak of the industrial revolution, Turner faced up to these new challenges when many other artists did not. Starting in the 1790s when Turner first observed contemporary life as a young painter, the exhibition will explore his fascination for industry and infrastructure as new elements of Britain’s landscape.

Two decades of conflict with France through the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars introduced another key dynamic to Turner’s work. He directly engaged with war in paintings such as The Battle of Trafalgar 1806-8 and Field of Waterloo 1818, but also depicted aspects of life and work in Britain before, during and after conflict. The exhibition will present his recollections of wartime at home and his reflections on the reputations of Nelson, Napoleon and Wellington as well as on ordinary soldiers and civilians.

The exhibition will also reflect on Turner’s interest in social reform, especially his changing attitudes towards politics, labour and slavery. These include liberal and humanitarian causes such as Greek independence from Ottoman Turkey, the 1832 Reform Act and the abolition movement. Key works such as The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons 1835 show his engagement with political events of the day, while A Disaster at Sea 1835 and Wreck of a Transport Ship c.1801 are ambitious depictions of maritime catastrophes.

The final section of the exhibition will focus on Turner’s pioneering treatment of steam technology, presenting Turner’s late style as a means by which the artist sought to develop a visual language fit for the modern world. Though alarming to his contemporaries, Turner’s late work is now appreciated as an eloquent response to the dizzying pace of change witnessed during his lifetime. The exhibition will explore how Turner followed his early interest in industrial advances through to the 1840s when, alone among his fellow artists, he made steam-boats and railways the subjects of significant exhibition pictures. Key works will include Snow Storm 1842 as well as The Fighting ‘Téméraire’ 1839 and Rain, Steam and Speed 1844 on rare loan from the National Gallery.

Tate Britain organises Turner’s Modern World in collaboration with Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The exhibition is co-curated by David Brown, Senior Curator, British Art 1790-1850, Amy Concannon, Curator, British Art 1790-1850, James Finch, Assistant Curator, 19th Century British Art, and Sam Smiles, Emeritus Professor of Art History, University of Exeter, with Hattie Spires, Curator, British Art. It will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue from Tate Publishing.

Turner’s Modern World – 28 October 2020 – 7 March 2021

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