J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free at AGO

Sunday, November 22nd, 2015. Filed under: Art Review Toronto
Burial at Sea, Turner, AGO

Peace – Burial at Sea. Exhibited 1842. Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 Photography © Tate, London 2015

Romantic, innovator, traveler, genius. J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) was Britain’s greatest artist and the pilgrimage to see the collection of his work at Tate Britain is one I’ve made each time I’ve visited London. His luminous, vaporous paintings are mesmerizing, and surprisingly modern.  I’m incredibly excited that many of these masterworks have come to Toronto in the AGO exhibition J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free.


AGO installation.

Joseph Mallord William Turner produced many of his most important paintings after the age of 60. Featuring more than 50 paintings and works on paper on loan from Tate Britain, the AGO exhibition focuses on the last 15 years of Turner’s life, a period in which he experimented with radical techniques.  Turner was the great Romantic artist, injecting wild drama and emotion into his landscapes. His obsession with capturing light and atmosphere would inspire artists like Whistler and Monet, push paint as a medium beyond its use for traditional representation to being an expressive form of communication itself, setting painting free.

Blue Riga

The Blue Rigi, Sunrise 1842. Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851. Purchased with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation and including generous support from David and Susan Gradel, and from other members of the public through the Save the Blue Rigi appeal) Tate Members and other donors 2007. Photography © Tate, London 2015

Lloyd DeWitt, the AGO’s curator of European art, recently led a walk-through of the exhibition which is organized thematically: Turner’s travels in Europe, his fascination with antiquity and mythology, his love of nature and the sea.  I found the sections on Turner’s travels and ‘varnishing days’ a special delight.

Venice painting Turner

The Dogano, San Giorgio, Citella, from the Steps of the Europa. Exhibited 1842. Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851. Presented by Robert Vernon 1847. Photography © Tate, London 2015

Sprinkled among the exhibition are several video screens showing clips from the 2013 biopic Mr. Turner, an entertaining and gorgeous film by director Mike Leigh. Striding along seacliffs with his sketchbook, lashing himself to a ship’s mast to observe a storm at sea, Timothy Spall plays Turner to grunting perfection.  Watching the movie before seeing the exhibition will add to your enjoyment and understanding.  The film trailer depicts a favorite scene, ‘varnishing day’ at the Royal Academy–a short period of time before exhibition during which artists were permitted to touch up their works. Turner loved the competitive repartee of varnishing days, often submitting paintings barely roughed in, completing them on the spot with theatrical virtuosity, dazzling his fellow artists.

Snow Storm, Turner

Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth. Exhibited 1842. Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 Photography © Tate, London 2015

Hard-working, uncouth, a likeable eccentric with considerable business savvy, Turner was ineloquent in speech but poetic with his brush.  While paintings of Turner’s later period were criticized at the time as unfinished and bizarre, they’re now celebrated as precursors to the Impressionists and his use of abstraction far ahead of his time.  Dying in December, 1851, Turner left a huge legacy of paintings to the state for permanent display to the public, and was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free is a rare opportunity to delve into an extraordinary creative personality and bask in the most glorious suns ever painted.  This is Toronto’s show of the season; don’t miss it.


J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free is on at the Art Gallery of Ontario until January 31, 2016. See the AGO website for Turner exhibition tickets and related events including AGO Friday Nights, Family Sundays featuring Shadowland Theatre performances every Sunday in November, Mr. Turner film screenings (November 27 and December 2), shop merchandise and special themed menu at Frank restaurant.  Follow #TurnerAGO on Twitter and Instagram.




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