Late Turner at Tate Britain review – an exciting, entrancing show

The curators brilliantly mix up the types of art he experimented with, without making judgments about the 'real' Turner
• Turner blossoms late at the Tate – in pictures

The twilight of the gods has come to Tate Britain. Like a Wagnerian opera painted in mist and fire, the late works of JMW Turner rise from silence to throbbing power, wheel out their visionary leitmotifs, and crash in apocalyptic frenzy.

Wagner and Turner have a great deal in common. Both are artists of myth on a grand scale who wallow in magnificent ambiguities and lashings of atmosphere. In Turner's 1837 painting The Parting of Hero and Leander, a lover is drowned in a boiling roiling sea while heavenly fire glows red above a Greek city that hubristically totters on a mountaintop. How Wagnerian is that? It is all an allegory of doomed desire, a grandiose illumination of Turner's long, unreadable poem The Fallacies of Hope (again like Wagner, he wrote his own libretto).

In late 19th- and early 20th-century France the paintings of Turner hovered alongside Wagner's preludes in the imaginations of artists from Monet to Matisse, who learned from them how colour could be expressive, atmospheric, even abstract. Is Turner then the father of modern art? Do his woozy vortices of light usher in a new way of seeing the world – our way of seeing the world?

Art historians smile knowingly at that idea, pointing out that Turner is a man of the Romantic age whose art is dense with historical and mythological information, making it anachronistic to think he ever paints for painting's sake.

Late Turner – Painting Set Free drowns such quibbles under a flood of raw wild paint. We've seen all kinds of Turners portrayed by recent exhibitions of his works, from Turner the student of the Old Masters to Turner the nautical cove. Here at last is the Turner who matters – the man who invented modern painting.

The old cliche that Turner anticipated the Impressionists fades away in this exhibition. Not because it's untrue, but simply because it is so inadequate to his true influence. If you can see Monet's Impression: Sunrise foreshadowed in his watercolours you can also see how Salvador Dalí and Max Ernst echo Turner's more surreal moments – his trees that float in the sky like glowing jellyfish, his encrustations of edible-seeming paint – and how the American artist Cy Twombly reinterprets his classical scenes in paintings that are great lyrical sighs of abstraction and graffiti.

Turner's modernism flashes forth everywhere in this exciting, entrancing show. The curators' brilliant move is to mix up all the types of art he experimented with in his last years, from daring watercolours to unfinished canvases, without making prior judgments about which works represent the "real" Turner. One moment he is retuning to one of his earlier works – Regulus, first made in 1828 and reworked in 1837 – to intensify its blinding light; the next he is painting, in 1834-5, the Houses of Parliament on fire. For him this national disaster is a spectacle to be delighted in for its explosion of gold and bronze in the London night.

Rare Turner Paintings Brought Together For Tate Exhibtition
Viewing the painting by J.M.W. Turner called 'Bamborough Castle' Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

The critic John Ruskin, who championed Turner, later condemned the modernist Whistler for "throwing a pot of paint in the face of the public" in a near-abstract nocturne of fireworks over the Thames. Ruskin was kidding himself. It was his hero Turner who first used paint to create a sheer optical rush. When the Tower of London caught fire he captured that too as a pure visual thrill in a sequence of watercolours that are barely representational at all.

Turner's watercolours are his most radical works of all. Pale blues and searing pinks touch tiny worlds of feeling into existence.

To explain how a man who was born in 1775 and died in 1851 could anticipate so much of modern art I need to return to that comparison with Wagner (who was a lot younger). Both of these immense 19th-century creative figures take Romanticism to such an extreme that it breaks apart and becomes modernist. Critics who see Turner's enthusiasm for storms and sunlight as a showy nervous performance miss the point. Of course it is. There is a psyched up desperation to his art that does not make sense as a response to nature.

It is achingly theatrical, even phoney, but it is pursued with an energy and inventiveness that makes each painting a passionate search for meaning and purpose in the universe. That search is met only by the blinding sun, burning into the brain of Regulus, illuminating ruined cities, revealing the funnel of a steamship, the onrush of a locomotive.

Burial at Sea, 1842 painted late in Turner's career when critics were suggesting that the painter wa
Burial at Sea, 1842 painted late in Turner's career when critics were suggesting that the painter was losing his mind Photograph: Tate Britain/PA Photograph: Tate Britain/PA

Turner paints his own need to paint. His art reveals his need for art. Its heroism hits the buffers, his energy is swirled into one painted shipwreck after another. Out of the ashes of this Götterdämmerung I crawled away exhausted, wrecked, into the empty light of the modern world.


Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Turner blossoms late at the Tate – in pictures
Late Turner – Painting Set Free draws together the stunning work JMW Turner created between 1835 and his death in 1851

08, Sep, 2014 @11:52 AM

Article image
Turner’s Modern World review – a roaring, wondrous whirlpool of a show
From the most devastating depiction of the slave trade ever to an erotically-charged shipwreck, JMW Turner’s heart-stopping maelstroms of sea and steam and smoke made him a true visionary of his age

Jonathan Jones

26, Oct, 2020 @9:00 AM

Article image
Turner's abstract works demonstrate his confidence in his viewers
Tate Britain shows the artist's most radical and daring works, including nine square paintings hung together for the first time
• Late Turner at Tate Britain review
• Turner blossoms at the Tate – in pictures

Mark Brown

08, Sep, 2014 @3:32 PM

Article image
Sky's the limit: landscape art sweeps into Tate Britain – in pictures

From aerial shots of airport runways to romantic 17th-century vistas, a new exhibition in London puts the art of landscapes firmly in the frame

13, Feb, 2013 @11:08 AM

Article image
Constable and Turner landscapes reunited for first time since 1831
Paintings behind one of most famous feuds in British artistic history go head to head at Tate

Maev Kennedy

25, May, 2018 @11:51 AM

Article image
Grand rivals: Turner versus the masters at Tate Britain

Take an early look at Turner and the Masters at Tate Britain, a major new exhibition that places JMW Turner's artworks alongside the paintings that inspired them

21, Sep, 2009 @11:29 AM

Article image
Watercolour at Tate Britain - review
Despite associations with Victorian ladies and flower paintings, watercolour has often been far from wishy-washy. The Tate's new survey – from the haunting visions of William Blake to intimate scenes by Tracey Emin – shows the medium's versatility and power. By Kathryn Hughes

Kathryn Hughes

05, Feb, 2011 @12:05 AM

Article image
Dirty pretty things: air pollution in art from JMW Turner to today
Born just before the steam engine was invented, Turner gloried in the smog and grime of the industrial revolution – but today’s artists reveal the damage emissions cause

Anna Souter

28, Oct, 2020 @2:44 PM

Article image
Turner, dwarves and dogs in space – the week in art

Jonathan Jones: Tate Britain delves into the great painter's late abstract phase, as we take a tour a bizarre amusement park in China and revel in the Soviet pooches that became design heroes

Jonathan Jones

05, Sep, 2014 @12:07 PM

Article image
Late Turner: Painting Set Free review – prepare to be dazzled
Tate Britain’s glorious exhibition of Turner’s late work shows painting ‘returned to its origins and refined to its essence’, writes Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad

13, Sep, 2014 @11:08 PM