Painting Set Free: J.M.W. Turner at AGO

Peace - Burial at Sea by J.M.W. Turner at the AGO
Peace - Burial at Sea by J.M.W. Turner


J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free at AGO

Even before I could make plans to book my visit to see this major exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, celebrating the powerful yet contemplative late works of Joseph Mallord William Turner, I was invited to a media tour. What luck!

David Wistow, AGO Senior Interpretive planner, led us through the J.M.W. Turner exhibit, which features more than 50 glorious paintings and watercolours from this giant of British art. Wistow gave us so many interesting facts and insights, I’ll try to recount them to you here.

Turner is an innovative painter – he likes to always do something new – he doesn’t want to do today what he did yesterday. He tossed out conventions and scrapped the norm. He adopted new techniques to make skies and clouds look luminous and expressive. He loved painting water, which is very difficult to paint.

In the Norham Castle painting, the blazing light partially blinds as the historic building and landscape merge. There is amazing gentleness in this painting, but Turner spat and blew paint on the canvas. He certainly wasn’t a gentle painter – he scrubbed the canvas with a brush and rubbed it with his finger. Turner was renown for his unconventional techniques, something we’ll never forget from his biopic, Mr. Turner by Mike Leigh.

Norham Castle by J.M.W. Turner at the Art Gallery of Ontario
Norham Castle by J.M.W. Turner at AGO

Peace shows the burial at sea of Turner’s friend, the artist David Wilkie. He used a cool palette and saturated blacks while stressing he could not find a black black enough for his grief. Joseph Mallord William Turner painted the mallard duck in this picture as though to paint himself (Mallord is his middle name) in the picture, infusing himself in the scene. The work was criticised at the time for what was considered a lack of finishing. In fact, it is difficult to tell if his paintings are indeed complete.

Peace - Burial at Sea by J.M.W. Turner at the AGO
Peace – Burial at Sea by J.M.W. Turner

Snowstorm captures Turner’s obsession with extreme weather. We get the impression he was out there in serious inclement weather on a steamboat at the heart of a stormy vortex. Many of his paintings are in a type of vortex. Rumour has it that Turner actually had himself tied to the mast of a ship during the storm to get a better account of what the ship must have felt like in the midst of the wind and ocean. For us it is an incredible journey deep into tumultuous waters. At the time, the work was controversial for the lack of detail. We now appreciate Turner’s untamed brushwork since it creates a swirling composition of chaos.

Snow-Storm Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth by J.M.W. Turner at the AGO
Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth by J.M.W. Turner at AGO

J.M.W. Turner often revisited similar subjects in his work, tweaking the content or the lighting slightly. Many of his works depict how frail we are in facing the merciless force of nature.

Group enjoying J.M.W. Turner exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario
Group enjoying J.M.W. Turner at AGO

We learned that Turner flung, spattered and slapped paint onto canvas, which was the beginning of a new style of painting and certainly opened the door for the likes of Jackson Pollock and many others. With Turner’s innovation, modern painting is born.

Visit the AGO to be pulled into J.M.W. Turner’s kind of supernatural vision. Be dazzled by nature’s radiance and be in awe of nature’s crushing power.

J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free continues at the Art Gallery of Ontario to January 31, 2016.

Comments are closed.