Robert Thody, Education Officer | April 4, 2018
What’s so special about an English landscape artist’s exhibition of a mere 50 paintings, currently on show at the Art Gallery of Ontario?
J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free encapsulates the last phase of Turner’s career from 1835 to 1850. In that short period, in those few paintings, we are introduced to profoundly fresh and liberating works. Form and detail are blurred through the artists vision and painting process (including occasional peculiar scratchings and scumbling of paint), causing his narrative, myths and landscapes to be eerily transformed by emotion, atmosphere and light. This was confusing to his peers at the the Royal Academy of Arts, where he remained a controversial and misunderstood member until his death in1851. Choosing not to sell his prolific output of work, he bequeathed 300 oil paintings, 30,000 sketches and watercolours and 300 sketchbooks to the British nation, in his will, which are now housed in the Clore Gallery at Tate Britain. Every year, in honour of the artist, the Tate Gallery awards a prize to a British artist under fifty years of age known as the Turner Prize, possibly Europe’s most prestigious contemporary visual art award.
A wonderful companion to this exhibition is writer-director Mike Leigh’s film ‘ Mr Turner’, which depicts the final quarter-century of the painter's life. Leigh renders a deeply human and complex character, played by Timothy Spall, who won the Best Performance by an Actor award at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival for his performance of Turner. Rather than a detailed portrait we are immersed in a rich period piece with a flawed man of passion. One scene has Turner strapped to the mast of a ship so that he can experience a snowstorm which he later renders in paint. The film, like Turners paintings, defies a simple portrayal and instead offers an unsettled character, a liberated risk taker, who, like the Turner Prize named after him, is often at odds with the conventions of the day.
Bringing together spectacular works from the Tate and other collections, J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free is on show at the AGO until January 31, 2016.
The winner of this year’s Turner Prize will be announced on 7 December 2015. The most surprising nomination of the four being Assemble, a collective of artists reclaiming architecture, action and DIY.