Late Turner: Painting Set Free review – prepare to be dazzled
“Painting set free”: my query about the subtitle of Tate Britain’s show is “free from what?” In the 1960s, when Lawrence Gowing used the phrase to sum up Turner’s achievement, it complimented him for having released painting from the dreary chore of mimesis. The destiny of the art, supposedly, was to become autonomous, which meant abstract, so that Turner, whose canvases looked to a contemporary detractor like “pictures of nothing”, was acclaimed as a forerunner of Jackson Pollock with his labyrinths of dribbly pigment or Mark Rothko, whose panels resembled lakes of dried blood.
The anachronistic tribute did help to rehabilitate Turner and make him fashionable again: not long before, Kenneth Clark had found some of his late, dazingly indistinct landscapes junked in the basement of the National Gallery, rolled up like lengths of mouldy tarpaulin. All the same, it was wrong to call him a “romantic abstract-expressionist”, as the poet Kenneth Rexroth did. Even in his last decades, as the Tate’s glorious exhibition demonstrates, Turner’s painting still carried a traditional freight of myth and political prophecy, with illustrations of randy Olympian gods pursuing terrified mortals or vistas of ancient Rome in decline that warned Britain about the fragility of its maritime empire; he went on painting anecdotal scenes of peasant revelry in Italy for sale to titled tourists, and had a journalist’s eagerness to document a news story, as when he hired a boat to get a better view of the conflagration that destroyed the Houses of Parliament in 1834.
But although Turner may not have freed painting from literary or topical subject matter, he certainly marginalised those sources. Often, in his maelstroms of agitated water and inflammatory blazes of light, the putative subject is hard to locate. A painting of Apollo chasing the nymph Daphne – who turned into a laurel tree to escape him – reduces the infatuated god and his prey to lookers-on, and transfers its attention to a hound and a hare that re-enact their chase. Where is the Roman consul Regulus in the painting in which his Carthaginian captors rip off his eyelids to blind him? He may be one of a few gesticulating figurines in the foreground; it doesn’t matter, because what interests Turner is the searing glare of the African sun. Another canvas purports to show the god Mercury ordering Aeneas to leave the Carthaginian queen Dido and resume his travels, which will end in the founding of Rome. Mercury, however, is too mercurial to be seen: in his place there is only a silvery, shimmering column of air, as if Turner had caught the winged messengers dematerialising
The episodes Turner picked out from classical myth and biblical fable are boldly reinterpreted when he paints them. With Bacchus and Ariadne, another Ovidian coition between god and mortal, he made no attempt to compete with the ecstatic volatility of the figures in Titian’s painting of the same encounter. Instead the wine god and his tipsy revellers melt in a torrid sensual furnace, a river of molten gold that spills down from a flaring sky. Again Turner evokes something that can scarcely be imagined, let alone made visible: the transfiguration of Ariadne makes her a source of new light, as the jewels in her crown ignite as stars. We are glimpsing a metamorphosis, and Turner therefore paints a metaphor of sexual awakening.
Creation for Turner was not the act of rational enlightenment that Genesis describes; his world catches fire as it comes into being. He spoke of his sketches as “colour beginnings”, because for him nature first revealed itself in a display of iridescence. Rather than the white light that banishes darkness in Genesis, a spectrum displays the wonders of earth and the miracle of optics. “The sun is God,” Turner said on his deathbed, and the angel with the gesticulating wand whose pinions are inflamed by the sun in one of his last paintings does not function as an agent of apocalypse. This indeed might be the artist’s self-portrait: he was, as Ruskin said, an archangel, though packed into the squat body of an eccentric cockney, and he had been “sent as a prophet of God to reveal to men the mysteries of his universe”.
In Turner’s cosmology, no tidy-minded deity divides the waters from the dry land. Elated as he was by cascades and whirlpools, floods and storms, he could hardly conceive of Noah’s deluge as a fatal reproof to mankind. He therefore painted that inundation as a combat between light and shade, the meteorological and metaphysical drama that always preoccupied him. When the waters recede, they leave a refreshed Earth and a glowing sky, with Moses afloat in mid-air writing Genesis – except that this Moses, as David Blayney Brown suggests in the Tate catalogue, may well be Moses Harris, an entomologist and chromatic theorist, so that God’s disciplinary book is actually being rewritten by Turner.
At times his version of primordial life looks Darwinian: in Sunrise With Sea Monsters a lucid sunrise has not yet cleared away the mists within which two unclassifiable leviathans, spouting or frothing and grinning with razory teeth, start the long evolutionary trek towards land.
These grand reveries about the moment when the world emerged from chaos are matched by Turner’s observation of contemporary society, where he found the same spectacle of creation and destruction happening simultaneously. Constable said that Turner’s canvases were filled with “tinted steam” not viscous pigment; for all its sarcasm, the remark was accurate. The industrial revolution harnessed the energy of steam to drive engines, which enabled Turner to portray a kind of second creation. Hence the packet boat that fumes its way across an otherwise unperturbed Lake Lucerne in one of his Swiss landscapes, or the Great Western train, a locomotive of the Firefly class, that parts the fog on a viaduct in Maidenhead in Rain, Steam, and Speed. An iron foundry looks like Vulcan’s forge, and rockets fired to warn shipping of shoal waters register for Turner as errant asteroids, evidence that our world remains unstable and combustible.
In 1839, when the painter Paul Delaroche saw the first daguerreotypes, he said: “From today, painting is dead.” He could not have been more wrong, as Turner’s final works demonstrate. Photography means “writing with light”, but light isn’t necessarily literate, and it doesn’t pencil in outlines or confirm the solidity and separateness of forms. Turner, more perceptively, scribbles, scrawls, doodles and free-associates with light. In his watercolours, composed with “wet-in-wet washes”, a liquid squiggle can suggest a fishing boat, a rapid brush-stroke is able to conjure up a mountain, and a splash of white looks spectral, literally appalling: is the colourless horseman galloping on a stormy beach a glimpse of death, the pale rider? On varnishing day at the Royal Academy, Turner dabbed highlights on his paintings and, to the stupefaction of his colleagues, seemed to animate them by doing so, startling them into life at the very moment when he should have left them fixed and finished.
What you see at the Tate is not painting liberated but painting returned to its origins and refined to its essence. The art after all is the exploration of light as it plays on or even sets fire to structure, and of colour as it prismatically opens up the radiance of nature; at its most sublime, it is the art in which sight is intensified and ignited so that it becomes a kind of supernatural vision. Emerging from Turner’s heliocentric cathedral, I felt I had cataracts: it takes time to re-accustom your dazzled eyes to the wan, monochrome mock-up we call reality.
Late Turner: Painting Set Free is at Tate Britain until 25 January