Turner’s Twilight

The artist’s late paintings shocked and baffled his contemporaries but there was method in his madness

Art
A modern leviathan: Turner’s “Rain, Steam, and Speed—The Great Western Railway” (1844) may have been aimed at Isambard Kingdom Brunel (The National Gallery)

Of making exhibitions about J.M.W. Turner there is no end. The latest — and one of the more interesting — in an immemorial line is Late Turner: Painting Set Free at Tate Britain (September 10 – January 25, 2015). “Late”, in this instance, means 1835 to 1851, that is from the age of 60 to his death at 76. The paintings of this period, with their freedom, their colour-infused atmospherics, their radically loose handling of paint, have long divided opinion. While they baffled his contemporaries they have been hailed by later generations as prototypes of modern art. Turner’s peers couldn’t decide whether many of the pictures were finished or simply works in progress. So aberrant could they seem that even the painter’s greatest advocate, John Ruskin, turned on them: Turner’s work of the mid-1840s, he said, showed “distinctive characters in the execution, indicative of mental disease”.
Underlying the exhibition is the urge to show that Ruskin and others were wrong. In fact, as he aged, Turner did not slip into senescence, pessimism or even comfortable repetition and artistic stasis but, if anything, became a more radical artist than he had been when younger. Not only did his engagement with the modern world deepen but his technical experimentation picked up pace as time ran out. 
The paintings that best show his curiosity are the suite of nine square paintings he worked on between 1840 and 1846. Square canvases were a departure in his own work and a rare format in art in general. The themes revisit many of his regular topics, taking in the Classical (Glaucus and Scylla) and the nebulous (Light and Colour — Goethe’s Theory),  the religious (The Angel Standing in the Sun — the picture that prompted Ruskin’s outburst) and the modern historical (War: The Exile and the Rock Limpet — showing Napoleon). But what the paintings really examine is the vortex, a technique he had used before but which became characteristic in his later work. 
Each painting is essentially a swirl around a central vanishing point, a Vitruvian balance of square and circle. The effect is twofold: it gives even a contemplative subject a dynamic surge that does away with the rational certainties of traditional perspective, and it sucks the viewer into the painting like water disappearing down a plughole. While many of his topics may be familiar themes in the cultural tradition he dematerialises them. Because there is elegy or destruction inherent in each of his subjects these are doubly unsettling works, not least in that they also seem to question his own assertion that “the sun is God”. Here the sun is in danger of being swallowed. “Alas for Turner!” wrote Ruskin at the end of Modern Painters. “He was without hope.”

The exhibition shows that Ruskin’s lament was misplaced. In the 150 works on show colour and light continue to dominate. In many ways his age and status allowed him to make formal experiments with paint that might otherwise have been impossible. In the late pictures he used the paint itself as a symbol of creativity, refusing to be trammelled by simple representation: “Indistinctness is my forte,” was his response to one mystified patron. The gulf between his early works as a topographical watercolourist and the deliquescing canvases of his older age is unmatched by any of his contemporaries. 
It wasn’t that he found new topics but that he treated them in a new way. Here are maritime scenes such as The Wreck Buoy (1849), the last sea picture he exhibited, which is a reworking of an earlier work. In it a rainbow cuts through a spray of mist and haze to touch the sea above a warning buoy — it is a picture that can be read either as symbolising the fallacy of hope or of its triumph. The clarity of a painting such as the Dutch-inspired Bridgewater Sea Piece of 1801 has dissolved. His landscape pictures meanwhile culminate in one of the most melting of all his watercolours, The Blue Rigi, Sunrise, (1842), painted on one of the European tours that were a feature of his mature life and practice (his last journey was in 1845). If his oil paintings of the time are a demonstration of technical vigour, this little watercolour is the essence of delicate and misty serenity.
Turner and the modern world is a more equivocal relationship. Rain, Steam, and Speed — The Great Western Railway (1844), for example, is frequently cited as an example of his excitement with technology but it seems just as likely that the locomotive steaming across Maidenhead Bridge is as much a critique as a celebration. The train is a modern leviathan just as in his paintings of whalers at work the cetacean takes that role. Both show the incursion of industry into nature and since Turner was an astute businessman it is entirely possible that the themes were chosen not so much out of personal predilection but to appeal to patrons such as Elhanan Bicknell, whose fortune came from whaling, or even Brunel, the engineer of the Great Western Railway, who was also (with his wife) a significant collector of contemporary art. 
Modernity for its own sake was of limited painterly interest to Turner unless it contained within it a sense of the epic. If that also encompassed a sense of history then so much the better; hence his painting the Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons (1835), for which he hired a boat in order to sketch the pyrotechnic scene from the Thames like some 19th-century Magnum photographer, and also a recently identified watercolour of a fire at the Tower of London (1841). 
William Hazlitt famously dismissed Turner’s later paintings as “pictures of nothing, and very like”. He was wrong. There is method, meaning and the numinous in these whorls and washes of light and colour. Turner himself put it better when he noted simply: “Painting is a strange business.”