Over the holidays I finally seized the opportunity to head up to the National Gallery in Washington D.C. for the Turner show. This traveling exhibition is a rare opportunity to see some 140 works by a true master of landscape painting (and, I might add, great-grandfather of abstraction). The show was wonderfully comprehensive, and featured so many of his larger scaled oil paintings as well as his intimate watercolors. It's probably an understatement to say that Turner seemed an interesting guy. His work showed a passionate interest in depicting disasters (caused both by nature and by man) in powerful compositions of dramatic color and light. In painting after painting, one sees snow storms, shipwrecks, thunder, and fire swirling with emotion. The man must have been exhausted! I am not overly fond of the strong narrative element in many of his paintings, but even so, there is much to see and appreciate in these works. Turner was an artist concerned with social and political injustices both past and present and used narrative elements (both visually and in some of his ridiculously long painting titles) to make his points. He had some statements to make, that's for sure.
Turner started out as an architectural draftsman, and mastered drawing at an early age. This was quite evident in his beautiful paintings of Rome and Venice (pictured above). And while paintings of pure landscape were minimal, there were more sublime pieces as well, where the narrative was limited and light was the subject. Some of my favorites of the larger oils were labeled as "studies" or"unfinished". I loved the way these were so fresh and stripped down to their simplified essence of light and color. He was a precursor to the Impressionists and truly ahead of his time. As explained in NGA exhibition supporting materials, these "incomplete" works were just that, and probably not meant for exhibition, but as preparations for "finished" paintings to present to collectors and the Academy. But we can appreciate them with our modern sensibility as works of art in their own right, as well as for their wonderful documentation of this artist's processes.
While the oils were undeniably impressive and painted with skill and bravura, I personally found greatest delight in his watercolors. These just blew me away. Works ranged from highly finished watercolors with a lot of detailand drawing, to quick expressive sketches (near abstractions) from his sketchbooks.
If you're anywhere near D.C., you can catch this extraordinary show at the National Gallery's West building through January 6th, 2008 . Check out this cool online exhibition preview at the NGA's website! Next stops for the exhibition are Dallas and New York.