Turner and the Masters at Tate Britain, review

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The subject explored by 'Turner and the Masters’ at Tate Britain is so fundamental to understanding the art of JMW Turner that I’m surprised it’s never been done before. All artists learn by copying the art of the past.

What makes Turner unique is that his engagement with the old masters was so blatant, so public, and lasted throughout his career. Whether you see them as acts of homage or confrontation, every picture by him in this show is a variation on a theme provided by an old master.

Seeing Turner’s canvases side by side with those of Claude, Poussin, Titian or Teniers I began to think that he is like a virtuoso musician playing scores written by long dead composers. In each case he is faithful to the structure of the original but as he works, he interprets and improvises until the finished canvas could never be mistaken for anything other than a Turner.

And just like a musician’s, the success of each performance varied, depending on his affinity with the artist he was working with. Though there are many sublime pictures by him in this show, it is fascinating to watch him take on a painter such as Watteau or Claude and fall flat on his face.

From his boyhood, Turner lived and breathed the old masters. As a student he revered the president of the Royal Academy Sir Joshua Reynolds, accepting without question Sir Joshua’s teaching that art is a hierarchy with history painting at the top, followed by landscape, portraiture and genre painting.

In Turner’s 'Chateaux de St Michael, Bonneville, Savoy’ nature is idealised by suppressing detail and by balancing dark against light, and space against volume. Though he is painting a real place, the picture isn’t topographical view, such as Paul Sandby might have painted. Turner transcends the particular to transform a local beauty spot into an ideal classical landscape in the manner of Poussin. In other early works he adds figures from history and myth to elevate the lowly category of landscape painting into the highest art of all — the history picture painted in the grand manner.

In this show we see him systematically work his way through the history of art, taking on one old master after another, never slavishly copying them but often heightening the colour and intensifying the drama. In the famous picture known as 'The Bridgewater Sea-Piece’, Turner simply reverses the composition of Willem van de Velde the Younger’s 'A Rising Gale’. But Turner’s picture is bigger in scale, more frightening and more charged with emotion because his seas are rougher, the roll of his waves more pronounced, and his storm clouds blacker.

But he could get it all wrong. In one comparison that proves to be fatal for Turner, his 1828 landscape 'Palestrina — Composition’ hangs next to Claude’s 'Landscape with Jacob, Laban and his Daughters’. Seeing the Turner on its own, I’d never have noticed how brash it is. But next to a picture as subtle as this particular Claude, Turner’s palette looks vulgar, his detail fussy, and his composition overcrowded - especially in the pile up of bridge, town, castle and mountain at the left. And in this instance, Turner has nothing of Claude’s simple, slow moving grandeur.

I realise that in order for his pictures to be noticed under the impossible viewing conditions at the Royal Academy he needed to use strong colours and ever more inventive compositions. Even so, there are times in this show when Turner comes across as crass - and no artist defeated him more truly or more comprehensively than Watteau...

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