JMW Turner Braves The Elements In Margate

Turner and the Elements exhibition arrives at Margate’s Turner Contemporary, and reminds us of the literal truth in the expression; ‘Turner was a painter of light’

With this exhibition of over 80 paintings at Margate’ Turner Contemporary, J.M.W Turner has come home: not only home to Love Lane where he was schooled; and home, also, to the abode of his mistress Mrs. Booth that once stood on the very site of @TCMargate; but, most importantly, home to the root of his inspiration – to the skies of Thanet, ‘loveliest in all Europe’.

His oil paintings, of course – being monumental, both physically, and as an ever-present instalment of Art History –, are the initial winners of our attention: Yacht Approaching the Coast, for instance, presents us with a dramatic example of his whirling vision of collision between sea and sky, the figurative boat sailing through a highly abstract maelstrom of colour. And that’s on a quiet day at sea! Picture yourself in the scene of Snowstorm – Steam-Boat of a Harbour’s Mouth…, with the canvas churning out tempestuous anger, and cork-screwing winds. But it is, in fact, an even less figurative canvas, Stormy Sea with Dolphins, in which the fishy motif has been done away with altogether, to be replaced by an radically abstract mess of tattered clouds and sea, that points to the real joy of this exhibition; namely, its expressive modernity.

And, it in this way that the understated watercolours – making up 77 of the exhibition’s 89 works – slowly emerge as the star(fish) of the show. Storm, with Lightning on Coast, for instance, reduces the drama of massive oil works down to barebones, sparsely touching out the paper with areas of washy colour that hint to, rather than depict, landscape. Gone is the boat, the figures, the pier, that locate us in the real; here instead, is a scrupulously mean meditation on colour itself. Another work makes this even more explicit – it’s in the name; Colour Beginning. Gently rainbowing from blueness to red, it is an obtuse viewer who sees Sky and Earth, not a meditation on the workings of the spectrum.

Surely this should come as no surprise – ‘We all know Turner as a painter of light’, curator Ines Richter-Russo reminds us. But somehow it does, the literal truth of this truism lost through overuse. It takes a day like this, with the cold, clear light of the Kentish Coast – of Turner’s very own world – cutting through Chipperfield’s windows, to hear these words anew. Words/Photo: Thomas Keane © 2011 ArtLyst


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