Turner shines at MNAC

Catalonia’s national art gallery is exhibiting a hundred finished and unfinished works by the great master of romantic landscapes that he bequeathed to the British government and kept in the Tate Gallery in London

“Abstraction eliminates meaning and on the contrary, Turner fills his work with meaning” ”UNLIKE ARTISTS THAT WERE HIS CONTEMPORARIES, TURNER HAD A DEVOTION TO BLACK”
Turner bequeathed everything there was in his studio to the British government TURNER TRAVELLED EXTENSIVELY IN BRITAIN AND THROUGHOUT EUROPE IN SEARCH OF LANDSCAPES

The artist Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) claimed that in order to be able to paint the unleashed force of a storm with all its nuances, he had to tie himself to the mast of a ship on the high seas. “I don’t think I would have done it, but the experience was certainly very important to him,” says David Blayney Brown, former chief curator of British historical art at the Tate gallery and curator of the Turner exhibition, La llum és color (Light is colour), on show at the MNAC national gallery until September 11. The show is jointly organised by MNAC and the London institution that conserves much of the legacy of an artist who is considered to be the best romantic landscape painter ever, and the first to endow landscaping with respected status.

Shrewd, vain and reserved, Turner did not want to become the richest man in the cemetery or ensure the future of his children (whom he never recognised as such). Turner wanted to transcend, and so he bequeathed everything there was in his studio to the British government: 400 finished works, between 200 and 300 more unfinished ones, and 35,000 preparatory studies that show he was not only a genius but also very hard-working. Painting for him was his life and he began at the tender age of 13.

The MNAC exhibition features a hundred pieces, some finished, some unfinished, and others sketches, which Turner never put on display. The blend of works allows the visitor to trace Turner’s peculiar creative method. “Unlike the Impressionists, Turner did not paint outdoors but in his studio. But before starting, he would gather numerous notes that he took on the spot. Using these recollections of what he had seen, he experimented with how to transmit them, and this process often took years,” the curator says. An example that stands out in the exhibition is that of a very embryonic work that he did in 1802 from a view of Grenoble but that he did not elaborate definitively until 1824.

Turner travelled extensively in Britain and throughout Europe in search of a wide variety of landscapes. In the Swiss Alps, for instance, he was captivated by the small scale of human beings, while he found Venice the ideal place to perfect one of his great specialties: representing the impact of light on water. He then switched from pure nature to the incipient scenarios shaped by the Industrial Revolution, with the fog of smoke and pollution clouding the horizon.

His blurred, vaporous, incorporeal way of painting has often been read as an avant-garde abstraction. There is also the less sympathetic interpretation that he had problems with his vision and even his mental state. “Atmosphere is my style,” he said. “I don’t think it is at all abstract. Abstraction eliminates the meaning of the work and on the contrary, he fills his work with meaning and emotion,” adds Blayney Brown.

Turner’s existing modernity lies, argues the curator, in his obsession with transferring to the viewer a state of mind intertwined with natural phenomena, from the calm of a rainbow to the rage of an agitated sea. “His paintings even seem to have sound, because he was very concerned that they evoked the movement of the permanently mutating landscape.”

Hence the importance he gives to the sun (“The sun is God” were purportedly his last words before he died), even examining scientific phenomenon, such as the imagery that the eye can still see after looking directly at the sun. Yet he also loved darkness. “Unlike his contemporaries, Turner had a devotion to black. When he was criticised about it he replied that said he should have used it even more,“ says the curator.

Also on display at MNAC is a splendid oil painting full of dark tension: Buttermere Lake, with Part of Cromackwater, Cumberland, a Shower. Almost all the titles of his works are meticulously descriptive, and some are very long. But the aura of the works is hard to put into words.

This is Turner’s first time at MNAC, and even when he was alive he never set foot in the National Palace that houses the gallery. To complement the Turner exhibition, MNAC has a parallel exhibition with some 80 works by 19th-century Catalan artists who were also portraying landscapes at the time, most of them drawings from the museum’s collections.

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