Turner’s Modern World review – a roaring, wondrous whirlpool of a show

Tate Britain, London
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

It’s not standard practice for curators to draw attention to a masterpiece they failed to borrow. But right in the middle of Tate Britain’s roaring whirlpool of a Turner exhibition is a reproduction of his 1840 painting Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On). Apparently, it has become too frail to make the transatlantic journey from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts – another twist in the story of the most devastating work of art ever made about the British slave trade. So, instead of passing over its no-show, the exhibition demands you pause to mourn it – and what it depicts.

This painting belongs at the heart of Turner’s Modern World even though it’s just here as an idea, a concept, with an excerpt from David Dabydeen’s poem Turner next to the repro. That’s because this exhibition presents Turner as a passionate and engaged painter of modern life. It shows how alive he was to the liberations and oppressions of his revolutionary age. Born in London in 1775, into a world ruled by aristocrats and monarchs where the horse was the fastest thing on earth, Turner lived to see the coming of trains, steamships, political reform and photography – and the abolition of the slave trade.

In 1781, when Turner was six, the captain of the Zong, a Liverpool slaving ship, ordered 133 of the commodified humans he was taking from Africa to Jamaica to be thrown overboard because, in the words of a contemporary account that Turner’s title echoes, “the dead and dying slaves would have been a dead loss to the owners”. Nearly 60 years later, Turner resurrected this crime against humanity in a painting that harrows the soul with its bloody sky and flesh-filled sea. By then Britain’s slave trade was in the past, best forgotten – but not by Turner. The critic Ruskin, who owned this painting, got so upset looking at what he called “the guilty ship” that even though he recognised it as Turner’s supreme achievement, he sold it abroad. It tells a truth the British find hard to look at – then as now.

Why was Turner able to visualise this horror? Because he was, as Ruskin called him, a Modern Painter. He adores the modern world in a way no one can today. A label reminds us that the smoke rising in dark grey majesty from river steamers in his c1835-40 canvas The Thames Above Waterloo Bridge is full of catastrophic carbon. But, for Turner, that smoke is sublime, a blue-tinged shadow sculpted against white mists.

Turner loves steam and smoke for the chance they give him to swish wet colours in new ways. I found myself sinking, falling into Snow Storm – Steam Boat Off a Harbour’s Mouth, the vertiginous spiral of whites and blacks he claimed to have painted after lashing himself to a mast in a storm. Scholars can’t trace the boat on which he claimed it happened, but, as Ruskin insisted, it is a higher truth Turner paints. If you stand in front of this corkscrewing vortex of spume you can sense yourself spinning. Turner plunges you into a world with no solid foundations, on a ship that’s foundering.

In the room dominated by the non-appearance of the Slave Ship hangs one of the weirdest Turners I have ever seen. A Disaster at Sea is thought to depict a real life tragedy that mirrors the criminality of the Zong. In 1833 a ship called the Amphitrite was wrecked off Boulogne while transporting 108 women prisoners and 12 children to the penal colony in Australia. Turner paints it as his answer to Géricault‘s Raft of the Medusa. But it’s also an erotic fantasy. Turner, to the consternation of his executor Ruskin, loved to draw and paint naked women. Here he creates a tangle of nude bodies clinging together in the slavering foamy sea – a sexy shipwreck.

It’s in colossally bad taste, and unforgettable. There are so many painterly thrills in this exhibition. I was criminally tempted to touch the surfaces, to feel those ripples and troughs of paint. In Turner’s staggering, almost abstract scenes of whaling in the Arctic, blinding white surfaces are scarred and cut as if he has been carving them with a knife.

This artistic radicalism is what enabled Turner to paint the Slave Ship – to imagine a historical event as if he was there. Its real meaning is revealed in the most unexpected way. I’d never noticed before how similar the Slave Ship is to his beloved masterpiece, The Fighting Temeraire, lent by the National Gallery. Both are burnished by his most heightened colours. Both depict an era that has gone. The Fighting Temeraire is a pale ghost ship pulled by a brassy steamboat: one of the last survivors of the Battle of Trafalgar being towed to oblivion. But Turner demands we remember it, with national pride. In the Slave Ship, he uses the same genius to preserve the most shameful of British memories.

Turner’s Modern World is at Tate Britain, London, from 28 October to 7 March.


Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

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

The curators brilliantly mix up all the types of art he experimented with, without making judgments about the 'real' Turner, writes Jonathan Jones

Jonathan Jones

08, Sep, 2014 @11:53 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
Pissarro in Norwood, Monet at the Savoy: what the exiled impressionists saw in London
Many great artists found refuge in London after fleeing tumult in France. Their sensational landscapes – beautifully capturing its streets, waters and winter snows – are the highlight of a major new exhibition at Tate Britain

Richard Shone

20, Oct, 2017 @2:44 PM

Article image
Walter Sickert review – serial killer, fantasist or self-hater? This hellish, brilliant show only leaves questions
The dead bodies of murdered women are served up as butcher’s meat in this survey of work by the Victorian painter who almost certainly claimed to the police to be Jack the Ripper

Jonathan Jones

26, Apr, 2022 @8:21 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: Art, Industry and Nostalgia review – Fighting Temeraire sets Tyneside ablaze
How do you make Turner’s most famous painting cool? Take it to Tyneside, where it’s end-of-an-era magnificence takes on a whole new ghostly meaning

Jonathan Jones

09, May, 2024 @4:09 PM

Article image
Sixty Years review – Tate's all-female rehang pulls its punches
Tate’s first display of work by female artists from its collection contains some great art, but is too shallow to shake things up

Adrian Searle

23, Apr, 2019 @5:04 PM

Article image
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye review – ‘she’s turned Tate Britain on its head’
The artist has boldly reclaimed figurative oil painting and filled the gallery with the kind of contemporary art it normally shuns

Jonathan Jones

02, Dec, 2020 @10:00 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
Apocalyptic visions from a shunned giant of British art – Frank Bowling review
He is up there with Turner, Rothko and Pollock. This magnificent show, which swings from joyous foam-filled works to serious meditations about slavery, is long overdue

Jonathan Jones

30, May, 2019 @8:00 AM