Turner and Italy: National Gallery Edinburgh, exhibition review

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Turner & Italy begins in 1802, when the Peace of Amiens made travel on the Continent possible for British artists, and J M W Turner crossed the Alps for his first, brief glimpse of the country that was to play such a crucial role in his art.

What is so striking about the first oil paintings resulting from this early contact with Italy is how relatively conventional they are, at least by comparison with what was to come. Take, for example, Château de St Michael, Bonneville, Savoy, a view of a country road shown in deep perspective to lead the eye to distant mountains, which hangs in the first gallery.

Technically, it is nothing less than masterly. But it is still "only" a view of nature seen through the lens of Old Masters like Poussin and Gaspard Dughet. Turner had not yet learned to think of his landscapes as repositories for his thoughts on history, poetry, philosophy and morality.

The resumption of war with France and its aftermath meant that Turner had to wait 17 years before his next journey to the south. During that period he learned everything he could about Italy's geography, architecture, culture and history.

Not surprisingly, given the reverence he had been taught to feel for the Old Masters, Turner believed that in a great work nature is idealised because the artist appeals to the imagination and not simply to the eye. Like all his contemporaries, Turner assumed that there was a hierarchy of subject matter in art – with the most important, history painting, at the top, landscape and portraiture somewhere in the middle, and genre painting at the bottom.

In this show, we can see that Turner went to Rome in 1819 expecting the landscape to look as it did in the paintings of Claude Lorrain.

In one of his first "Italian" landscapes, Lake Avernus – Aeneas and the Cumaean Sibyl (1814-15), the Virgilian subject and idealised surroundings reveal that, before he had set foot in central Italy, he was thinking of Claudian landscape as the inevitable setting for imagined scenes drawn from classical literature. Clearly, he left London with his head stuffed with visions of ancient, not modern, Italy.

But he was far too thoughtful not to be struck by the contradictions of the country he actually found there – backward, poor, bandit-infested and priest-ridden – where squalor and decay existed side-by-side with picturesque classical ruins and incomparable natural beauty.

He rambled through the country, guidebook in hand, drinking in everything he saw, seeing Italy through the eyes of a modern tourist, not as a fragment of an idealised past. His first mature responses to Italy, therefore, are infinitely more complex than those of an 18th-century predecessor such as Richard Wilson, whose landscapes are basically re-interpretations of Claude's, or of a successor such as Charles Lock Eastlake, who painted straightforward genre scenes.

Hungry for knowledge and aware that his time was limited, he filled notebook after notebook with sketches in pencil and studies in watercolour and body colour, not stopping to paint in oil because that could be done on his return to England.

As you walk through this show, ask what each work you see was intended to do: is a watercolour a quick transcription of what the artist saw in front of him of him at a particular moment in time? A carefully thought-out topographical view? Or is it a highly finished work of art in which Turner transforms the raw data in his sketches into a composition expressing his ideas about nature, history, politics or society?..

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