Turner Inspired/Turner and the Elements

Installation view of 'Turner and the Elements' at Turner Contemporary, 2012 Installation view of 'Turner and the Elements' at Turner Contemporary, 2012 - ©
Posted: Mon Apr 23 2012

Two exhibitions question what inspired JMW Turner to paint - the stuff of air, fire, earth and water and his jealousy of a long deceased rival. But is there more to lament than celebrate in this current Turner overdrive?

Even now, at the ripe old age of 237, JMW Turner (1775-1851) - perhaps our finest and most prolific painter ever - is being stretched close to breaking point. With recent shows such as 'Turner and the Masters' and 'Turner/Rothko' still warm in the ground, not to mention the annual desecration of his name for the Turner Prize, a whole new raft of Turner exhibitions are posthumously threatening to further muddy a reputation that was far from uniformly complimentary during his own lifetime.

'Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude' at the National Gallery pits the London-born artist against the French antecedent who Turner aspired to better in the field of pure landscape painting. However, as this highly regarded classicist, Claude Lorrain, was long dead (1604-1682) by the time Turner picked up a brush, any attempts by the British upstart to compete with this past master - whose work had once reduced him to tears - were little more than chasing ghosts. Of course, you have to study and learn from the greats, no matter who you are, but everything you need to know about Turner's debt to Claude can be dealt with in just one room.

The first of many picture pairings shows both artists' versions of 'Narcissus and Echo', revealing Claude's Italianate idealism and command of detail as opposed to Turner's less refined treatment of the mythical scene and his more romantic, realistic, Home Counties approach to depicting nature. Turner's use of colour in his version of 'Narcissus and Echo' was described in 1804 by The Sun's art critic (the newspaper's last incumbent?) as having the hue of 'clay' and 'boiled vegetables' and so angered the collector who owned Claude's original that he henceforward waged a one-man war on Turner's discordant 'blots'.

Such direct comparisons, while unflattering to Turner, also depict Claude as a virtuoso of little more than a proto-robotic painterly system, in which every element of the picture is contained, controlled and contrived. Turner preferred to be overwhelmed by the great outdoors, rather than merely rendering every inch of foreground, middle ground and background accurately, which Claude managed with the unerring, ubiquitous and artificial eye of Google Earth (there was in fact a black mirrored aid developed for Claude, known as the 'Claude Glass').

Despite their differences, Turner continued to try and outdo Claude, certainly mindful of the Frenchman's prodigious output and considerable commercial success. So much so, in fact, that he bequeathed two of his finest seascapes to London's National Gallery with the proviso that they be hung next to two comparable Claudes, meaning that you could have experienced the nub of this exhibition at any time, for free, in Room 15. But on goes this art-historical back and forth until Turner is no longer inspired but insipid (to use another of that rabid aristocratic collector's jibes), having inherited Claude's penchant for golden glows, which spread over his most crowd-pleasingly lachrymose compositions and were disparagingly described as Turner's 'yellow fever'.

The National Gallery's main crime is representing Turner as a retroactive beast rather than a forward-thinker, intent on his own imaginative, emotional responses to landscape. Presumably that's the idea behind Tate Liverpool's abstract triumvirate of 'Turner Monet Twombly' opening in June, but then why not team him with some of his contemporaries, like Turner and Shelley, Turner and Friedrich or just go for something more wacky, like Turner and De Hooch - in homage to both a great Dutch Old Master painter, Pieter de Hooch, and Tom Hanks's 1989 cop-dog mash-up? Granted, that's a silly joke, but is meant to be indicative of how gossamer-thin the threads of scholarship can fray.

Margate's great white hope for cultural regeneration, Turner Contemporary, shares a late April birthday with Turner and celebrates its first anniversary with an exhibition on much firmer ground, entitled 'Turner and the Elements'. While at first glance linking Turner to earth, air, fire and water seems as simplistic as calling Damien Hirst's retrospective: 'Skulls, Spots, Spins and Sharks' and on deeper reading there's too much pseudo-science lurking in the background - on whether Turner was friends with Faraday, for example - at least the four elements allow the artist to be judged on his own terms and compared to no one but himself.

The section on 'Earth', naturally, features mountainous passes and rocky outcrops in heavy vistas over Cumbria, Wales, Scotland and the French Alps. 'Air' and 'Water' focus on weather phenomena from rolling thunderstorms and waves claiming shipwrecks to emergent rainbows and sunsets over Margate. Turner's depictions of 'Fire' are legendary, not least in his first-hand accounts of the burning of Parliament in 1834, but a final section called 'Fusion' falls apart just as Turner begins to bring all these strands together.

In one gloriously minimal watercolour of scudding clouds, there's only a wispy pencilled hint of people or boats on the beach. Clearly, Turner was happiest when painting without figures or overt narratives, so, in other words, when not following in the footsteps of Claude, or anyone else for that matter, who surely wouldn't have dreamt of making pictures with as few seemingly intangible structural components as sea, sky and horizon line.

We may well be oversaturated with Turners, having over 30,000 of his works at our disposal, but we must never lose sight of his majesty or forget that the sublime cannot exist without some mystery, as Turner's great champion Ruskin once said. Happy birthday, and may he be allowed to rest in peace.