Showing his True Colours

J.M.W. Turner: Adventures in Colour (Turner Contemporary, 8 October 2016-8 January 2017)

Joseph Mallord William Turner has to be the hardest working artist in British history. Pretty well every provincial art gallery I’ve been to has one of his works, usually of a local view. This island is obviously well gifted with landscapes, the genre which he made his own. Even the Carbuncle in Lisbon has a couple on display. In his early career, I presume he used coaches, but steam boats and then trains presumably helped his meandering — especially after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. He got to Italy, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Czech, Slovenia, Austria and so on.

And yet I confess to a little resistance to him — I suspect there’s a little too much TurnerTM, Heritage painting, and I even went through a phase of liking the earlier, more classical styles. And I have a memory of visiting the Clore Gallery at the Tate — as you have to if you want your Blake fix — where a chunk of Turner’s unsold paintings he left to the nation are on display. Someone came in, took photos of every single panting, and left after four minutes. Very odd.

He was, of course, controversial in his day, his tastes and methods questioned, so I need to reevaluate him and his work. The Turner Contemporary has offered a couple of chances to do so — it always aims to have one of his works on show, it did a big Turner and the Elements show and now has J.M.W. Turner: Adventures in Colour as another opportunity.

The Tate posted an image of Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire on Facebook, and I noted it was a shame that this image of a sailing ship being towed by a steamboat out of a sunset to be broken up would be better if the coast were on the correct side. Someone responded that this was to do with composition and did I know the story of how Turner, on varnishing day at the Royal Academy of Arts, struck a red blob of paint on his canvas, next to Constable’s, and then worked it into a buoy.

Well, yes, actually, I do, if there’s one story that everyone knows about Turner, it’s the one where Turner, on varnishing day at the Royal Academy of Arts, struck a red blob of paint on his canvas, next to Constable’s, and then worked it into a buoy.

The coast is still in the wrong side. And anyway, sailing out of a sunset is hardly elegiac.

But clearly, the man had a way with colour, and the joy of the book on Turner and the Elements was its discussion of the technology of colours and Turner’s acquaintance with scientists of the day. The two cultures were not so divided back then. I think he was the first artists in Britain to use cobalt paints and I wish there’d been a bit more on this back then. I suspect, in what is a show that is frankly too big, the narrative got a little lost.

The first paintings you pick up as you enter are views of Norham Castle and Lincoln Cathedral. These follow the rules of landscape painting which I learned from Astrup’s breaking of them: you accentuate earthy brown in the foreground and exaggerate the blue in the background. This adds to the sense of perspective and scale — ideally you stick a human figure or an animal in the frame to give an identificatory viewpoint or a yardstick for size. Dolbadarn Castle (1800), silhouetted by the evening son, features bandits, adding a narrative (apparently about a Welsh family). Failing that, a spot of white or a splash of red will draw the viewers’ attention. His Fishermen upon a Lee-Shore (1792) has a limited pallete of browns and greens, made mobile by flecks of white and a red jacket.

In his training at the Royal Academy he was exposed to Claude Lorrain, Salvator Rosa, Nicolas Poussin, Titian and Canaletto, painters who tended to classical or Biblical narratives with landscape background. In the period of striving for realism I think you can see this — in his volcanos, fireworks and burning Houses of Parliament you can see Rosa. At much the same time, Joseph Wright was doing more interesting things with the light and John Martin finding a more monumental scale, but that’s more my taste.

Troubled by the sludginess of the browns and greens, Turner from 1805 started preparing his canvases with white paint or pigments, which gives a greater luminosity to everything that goes on top — I wonder if this was to be a Postimpressionist technique, as L. S. Lowry was to use it on advice of an French artist. Of course, sometimes the whiteness began to overwhelm the painting — the more famous canvases of clouds and seascapes, the mistiness of Frosty Morning (1813), the almost monochrome Venice with the Salute (1844) looking like spilt milk. On the other hand, he uses a European blue-coloured paper to stand in for sky or water in some drawings and a rich vermilion in Vermilion Towers (1838).

We learn along the way that he uses a mix of linseed oil and resin, megilp, as a means of enriching his standard paints and he started engaging with debates about the nature of colour. As Professor of Perspective — great job title — at the Royal Academy, he lectured on colour, colour wheels and chromatography, and whilst we have his handwritten notes on show, his writing is not legible. A transcript would have been useful — I should of course Google to see if they have been published. More annoying is the mention of refutation of Isaac Newton’s work on colour by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in which Turner sided with Newton, who described the splitting of light into the spectrum via the prism and discussed colour as reflected light. Goethe, on the other hand…

Well, I’m not sure what his theory is. I m not even clear, from further reading, that it is a theory. In part, in seems to depend on the prism being a special case and the refraction being more complicated than Newton allows, as well as the colour of shadows. Scratches head. Goethe’s Theories of Colour was translated by Charles Lake Eastlake in 1840, apparently a friend of Turner. Again the two cultures was unformed.

This comes to a head in Turner’s Late square canvases, with the colour taking on the curves of the circle — although I seem to recall the same circles in the work of John Martin. Two examples, I think Shade and Darkness — the evening of the Deluge (1843) and Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory), The Morning after the Deluge — Moses writing the Book of Genesis (1843) — seem to be explorations of Goethe’s thoughts on colour and emotion, but I’m not clear how this follows through.

These paintings might be pointing back nearly forty years to his picture The Deluge (1805), in itself a response to Poussin’s painting Winter (The Deluge) (1660-64), which features a boat within a cove or a cave pool by the sea. Turner seems to have seen this in 1802 and commented “The colour of this picture impresses the subject more than the incidents which are by no means fortunate either as to place, position or colour, as they are separate spots untouched by the dark colour that pervades the whole.” Turner is setting out to correct the deficiencies he goes into note, and adds a black sailor, although this might be a much later addition. The gallery notes Turner’s investment in 1805 in a cattle farm in Jamaica, connecting him to the slave trade. However, Turner was to become abolitionist in later years.

But the story of Turner and colour is distracted by the various views of Margate that Turner produced over the years — and it is undeniably interesting to see the obscure fishing village that became a watering hole transformed over the decades, and to note how much the town has declined since. Whilst the revamped (and distinctly post-Turner) Dreamland seems to limp along from financial crisis to financial crisis, the Turner Contemporary seems to flourish. The temptation to offer local views is understandable and is one thing that will draw people in.

Just as Mitchell and Kenyon clearly filmed locals to whom they then screened the films in the 1900s and for decades the walky photographers took photos of tourists to sell to tourists, so Turner clearly had an eye on what would sell to locals — or might interest those on tour. The corner devoted to engravings and mezzotints shows how Turner could further monetise his work — with some extraordinary work — even as his perfectionism cut against this success. As a painter of working class origin, he would see no shame in pleasing as many markets as he could, even as his experiments clearly pushed at the boundaries.

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Take A Chance On Me

Take a Chance on Me

Risk (Turner Contemporary, 10 October 2015-17 January 2016)

The Anthea Turner — a gallery whose Chipperfield design works better in Wakefield — is committed to always showing some J. M. S. Turner and contemporary art, for which read the past one year’s except when it suits them. They’ve had some great solo shows (Mondrian and Colour was frankly more interesting than the Liverpool Tate show), which are interspersed with themed shows. The second exhibition, about Youth, was amazing, Curiosity had some good items but wasn’t more than the sum of its parts and the Self left me a little cold.

So, Risk. Art which puts the artist at risk or may offend against dominant values?

Well, yes, Ruth Proctor films herself falling off a scaffold onto cardboard boxes (here is the scaffold, here are the boxes), Bas Jan Ader documents the start of his transAtlantic voyage that was never completed, Ai Weiwei gives various landmarks the finger. Meanwhile we have surgery footage of Orlan’s cosmetic surgery, Gregor Schneider’s faintly uncanny film of two neighbouring houses redecorated to be identical, Martha Abramovic leaning back from a bow and arrow pointed at her heart.

But then it’s extended to chance and fate. Gerard Richter scrapes back at his paint with a squeegee, post Minimalists let their art hang according to gravity, Marcel Duchamp drops string and Chris Burden drops steel beams into wet concrete.

And then, brace yourself, Turner experiments to see how different paints dry or soak into paper.

Careful now.

There’s a print of an old life jacket and a reconstruction of an ancient Chinese earthquake detector.

What there isn’t is any Jackson Pollock who also allowed chance into his aesthetic through pouring and dripping or Helen Frankenthaler with her too-wet paint or Frank Bowling’s dribbles. One might object that being open to chance is an abandonment of craft, but presumably there’s a selection process. There’s a film (whose makers I forget) which is a kind of mouse trap sequence, where rolling ball sets off a chain reaction. We don’t see however many versions didn’t work. And we don’t see what Duchamp did with the templates he made from the string.

There wasn’t any art that has been banned or challenged (Mapplethorpe’s photos, Magritte’s nudes might have been interesting, some of the vandalised art show at Tate Britain a couple of years back).

The biggest risk here, of course, is that there is such a show in a multimillion pound gallery in one of the more deprived corners of England — Margate was a Portas town, its twin industries of TB recovery and funfair being undermined by progress. Like Gateshead’s BALTIC, another venue which is curated rather than collected, it could simply do crowd pleasers (such as Grayson Perry), but instead challenges its clientele. It has to risk failure.

With a few exceptions, alas, in this it was a success.

Meanwhile, a ten minute walk, a megabaguette, a thirty minute bus ride and another ten minute walk away there is the UpDown Gallery, which specialises mainly in limited edition prints. ive not caught every show there, but those I have I’ve liked.

Upstairs, ending really soon, is the work of Loukas Morley, a ready-made artist in the tradition of Beauys with the colour sense of Hodgkin. Painting on various types of wood, either circular or rectangular or squaregular, clearly on the flat, he builds up layers of paint and resin, abstract yet active, usually allowing the ghost of the grain below. There are also witty sculptures – a board rubber, plastic lids from spray paints, crumpled metal á la John Chamberlain, a lemon as still life. He has been curated by Cedric Christie in the past and I suspect a cross-influence.

Meanwhile, downstairs, ending really soon, is Martin Grover and his (to be honest, annoyingly titled) The Peoples Limousine. It would be unfair to call Grover (like Magritte) a one-joke artist, even if it is a funny joke. He specialises in fake bus stop signs, wring out variants on the symbols, possible stops and kinds of route. One refer to Talking Heads songs, another to British movies set in London (Going Places: The London Nobody Knows/Meantime & High Hopes/Seven Days to Noon/The Fallen Idol/The Bells Go Down). Yes, it’s arbitrary, but it’s done with wit and charm.

There are also lists of lists, masquerading as compilation albums, depictions of famous musicians (Barry White, Marvyn Gaye) wandering around London or past CarpetRight. And then my favourites: The South London Procrastination Club (Established: not just yet). There’s a hint of the thirties railway destination poster about his more straight forward prints, but any of them should put a smile on your face.

It’s too late for this show — unless you go on Sunday — but keep an eye out.

Pot Look

Grayson Perry: Provincial Punk (Turner Contemporary, 23 May 2015-13 September 2015)

Grayson Perry has his USP: the crossdressing, his alterego of Claire. This has speeded him on to National Treasure status, alongside his Turner Prize, Channel 4 documentaries and Reith Lectures. As always the avant garde and the rebellious is absorbed into the mainstream.

The Anthea Turner show acts as a retrospective and was heaving both times I went. I hope this is an appreciation of his work rather than a Dreamland ride of aghastness. You are repeatedly warned that some items on display are not suitable for children. They’re certain not suitable if you aren’t open to irony.

Because irony was the mode I was operating in. In a vitrined at the halfway point of the exhibition is a leather one piece motorcycle suit, with customised wording. It’s Thom Gunn drag, the hypermasculine, but from Essex rather than Kent. Does he love or hate Essex? Mockney Essex Boy Jamie Oliver is invoked at at later point. Pukka. Does he love or hate working class culture? Does he love or hate middle class culture? Does he love or hate arts and crafts? Does he love or hate the art world?

The first room is a series of pots — for the exegesis you have to consult pink handouts with the titles and descriptors of each pot, although the numbering is at random. I Love Beauty is one of the simpler ones — muted palette, a St Eustache-style deer vision, a Union Falg in monochrome, a woman (Claire?) holding sceptre and bird. Football Stands for Everything I Hate echoes the Eurocup, but with a list of pet hates: shouting; special brew; chewing gum; duvet covers and so on.

The second room was the hest to my taste — although here is where we get the most exegesis as to his background. More pots, tiles for a house, archive matials and a series of engravings: A Map of Days; Map of an Englishman and Print for a Politician. The latter is an imaginary landscape of a battleground, labelled with special interest grouos such as atheists, broadsheets, teenagers, gifted, fitness fanatics, Modernists, republicans, countryfolks, non-smokers. Which side are you on? It is encyclopedic without being completist, whimsical in its arbitrariness. Which side is Perry on? A similar aesthetic is at work in the other two etchings — qualities, moods and so on.

The third space, with the motorcycle suit, has two films, the less said about the better (there is also one in the second room), but then I’ve a low tolerance for filmed art. I’m sure he and his friends had fun, but we’re at a disadvantage in coming in oartway into 47 minutes and note really being able to hear the sound. My loss, perhaps.

The final room has three of his tapestries, handdrawn onto PhotoShop and then made on a computer controlled loom. Whilst in Tracey Emin’s tapestries shown here a few years ago, the labour of socres of women in producing them was silenced, here the labour is erased in favour of mechanisation. Again the mood is encyclopedic collage — the first piece is Comfort Blanket, A British Citizen at its heart, a stylised queen to the right, a monotone union flag to the left and a list of people and things that offer comfort. Margot Fonteyn, Beatrix Potter, Francis Bacon, David Bowie, Agatha Christie, Jamie Oliver… Is confort good or bad? The Walthamstow Tapestry, from where London bleeds into Essex or vice versa (and wasn’t William Morris from around those parts?), is a tapestry of the seven ages of man, not so much a rake’s progress as a trademark’s progress. Finally there is a work on heaven and pilgrimage, whose name I failed to note, made for his British Museum Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman exhibition: a series of names for heaven surrounded by places of pilgrimage and stylised drawings that need not match the placename.

It is problematic to gender art modes, but there is a tradition of tapestry and embroidery being the work of women. Is the same true of pottery? As crafts they might get conceived of as lesser than the other arts — and then we bounce off that Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman and Virginia Woolf’s assertion that “Anon[…] was often a woman.” Does “Claire” give Grayson access to such folk arts (although let’s note the various sailors’ embroiderings shown at the Tate’s Folk Art exhibition)? On the other hand, just as sf is not a male genre, so pottery should not be a female one. But something makes me twitchy.

I came away feeling a little underwhelmed; it reminds me of some versions of the dérive, where people walk according to some algorithm except when they’re not. There’s clearly a sexualised unconscious being revealed/concealed among the bricolage, and that’s a fair enough schtick. A thing of beauty is a joy til morning, as someone once said and beauty is in the eye of the potmaker. Beauty is a measure of capital and class, among other things.

Meanwhile, it needs to be noted (and applauded) that the Anthea Turner will always display contemporary art alongside JMS Turner. Sometimes an artist will curate alingside her retrospective, sometimes paintings on the theme of the main exhibition will be shown. Here it is noted that Perry uses technology in the making of his work — and Turner was also an explorer of the latest technique. I see straws being clutched at…