CANBERRA, Australia — J.M.W. Turner has never before been the subject of a major exhibition in this country. The omission seems odd.
Turner's first seascape painting for London's Royal Academy was made about eight years after Capt. Arthur Phillip completed one of the great sea voyages in English history. Against huge odds Phillip had transported several hundred English convicts and their families across 15,000 miles of ocean, landing first at Botany Bay and then at Sydney Harbor. The crucible from which modern Australia emerged is the same one that gave us the spectacle of Turner's art.
A colonial outpost whose era of settlement by English seafarers roughly coincided with the mature years of the British artist's often astonishing paintings of the sea would seem a peculiarly resonant locale for an examination of Turner's art.
And so it turns out to be. A compelling new exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia shows, among other things, how the great British painter mythologized the sea. In oils and watercolors made during the first half of the 19th century, Turner conflated images of the untamed magnificence and excitement of nature with a cultural mastery over a wildly adventurous attitude toward painting.
A small exhibition of the artist's oil paintings was mounted in Australia more than 30 years ago, while a more sizable show of his dynamic watercolors appeared in the 1980s. But the 33 paintings and 64 watercolors that make up the current show comprise the first comprehensive look at his work ever assembled in Australia. Jointly organized with the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, where the full-scale overview of these often ecstatically sensuous pictures will make its only other stop at the end of June, "Turner" is rich in provocative insight.
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) was among the greatest of the European Romantic landscape painters. The show is missing a few of his classic works, such as "The Slave Ship" (1840) and "Rain, Steam and Speed--The Great Western Railway" (1844). But it does include many of the most important pictures the artist made.
Not the least of them are the famously dramatic pair of 1835 views of London's Parliament ablaze. The paintings, borrowed from museums in Cleveland and Philadelphia, have been seen together only twice before. They show a devastating fire the previous October, caused by careless burning of tax records.
The burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons had been a momentous spectacle, both viscerally and for the British imagination. The inferno roared for hours, the fire's towering flames brilliantly reflected in the river.
Turner, along with what seemed like most of London, had raced down to the Thames to watch the cataclysmic news event. Like CNN with a paintbrush, he apparently recorded the scene in sketches as it happened. (Some dispute this, saying they were done from memory shortly after.) The sketches became the source for his two paintings.
One self-evident theme in these alarming pictures is utter human helplessness in the face of spectacular natural forces--a theme central to the Romantic imagination in an era of vast industrial expansion. Nature functions as part dire warning, part great escape, part metaphor for social cataclysm.
However, nature wasn't all that Turner seems to have regarded as sublime. Painting too assumed a stature of awesome exaltation in his work.
Blazing sunsets at sea, mountainous thunderclouds, mysterious mists gathering over the canals of Venice, listing ships beneath moonlit waves, a glowing sunrise shrouding an apparition of sea monsters--these subjects were painted with a knowing admiration for the established styles and familiar compositions of a variety of artistic precedents. Everyone from Claude Lorrain and Rembrandt to various Dutch marine painters and English local heroes are swept up into Turner's brush.
So is a commitment to up-to-the-minute artistic fashion. Today, fashionability is often mindlessly hurled as a critical epithet for art, but Turner wanted his pictures to be part and parcel of the new public tumult of modern life. (Not by accident did he rush his paintings of the Parliament blaze into public exhibitions, the first less than four months after the fire.) He kept abreast of what his fellow artists were doing and regularly tried to one-up them.
Likewise he embraced a forward-looking experimentalism. Almost as fast as new painting pigments were invented they appeared on his palette--most notably the chromium yellow that led some derisive critics to describe his work as "jaundiced."