Is JMW Turner Britain's greatest artist?
He once divided critics, but Turner's profound influence on later artists is testimony to the immutable power of his creative vision...
Light fantastic … JMW Turner's The Fighting Temeraire (1838). Photograph: National Gallery Collection/Corbis; by kind permission of the Trustees of the National Gallery
Joseph Mallord William Turner is Britain's greatest artist.
What? Who says? What about Constable, or Lucian Freud? How do you even measure such a claim?
One measure is the fascination an artist holds, not just for the general public, but for other artists. If an artist of the past is still haunting, provoking and inspiring modern artists, that has to suggest some deep vitality. To this day, Turner haunts art in that way. It is not yet done with the grandiose after-echoes of his smoky light.
Olafur Eliasson is one artist whose experiments with light and atmosphere powerfully echo Turner's paintings. Eliasson's Weather Project in 2003 turned the Tate Modern Turbine Hall into a vast walk-in Turner world, where a blazing sun and heady, twilit space engulfed visitors in romantic illumination.
As if there were any ambiguity about Eliasson's debt to Turner, he's acknowledging it himself, in an exhibit opening at Tate Britain on 8 September. Eliasson's show is to be held in the museum's Clore Galleries, which are dedicated to Turner's vertiginous paintings. Eliasson has studied seven pictures by Turner and abstracted their colours into circular paintings that resemble the "colour wheel" widely used to analyse colour in Turner's age. Eliasson's colour wheels instantly evoke Turner, with their gold and bronze fiery hues.
Eliasson's homage coincides with Tate Britain's forthcoming exhibition of Turner's late, near-abstract oils and watercolours, in a year when passion for the painter is being rekindled by Mike Leigh's film Mr Turner, which comes out in Britain in the autumn.
Yet the influence of Turner on modern art is no publicity gimmick. It is an enduring affinity. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, pioneering French modernists from Monet to Matisse admired the intense chromatic freedom and atmospheric uncertainties of this British master.
It was partly because of his love for Turner that Mark Rothko gave many of his abstract expressionist Seagram Murals to the Tate. Rothko deeply admired Turner, and his eerie spells of pure colour echo Turner's bloody skies and seas. In fact, there's currently a Turner painting hanging in Tate Modern – not a gallery in which you would expect to see a 19th century landscape picture – next to the Rothko room.
When an artist makes a subject his own, it is impossible to ignore that artist's way of seeing. Turner said something eternal about the way light penetrates the human imagination. He meditated so deeply on the psychology of light – our love affair with the sun – that any artist fascinated by light is bound to echo him. Turner's sun pervades James Turrell's installations, which sculpt space with light, just as much as it enflames Eliasson's art. We can no more escape him than we can escape our need for light. Even photographs of deep space taken by the Hubble telescope are given colour by Nasa scientists in ways that echo Turner; somehow, he shapes how we see nebulae and supernovae.
If the sun is God, as Turner is supposed to have said, this incandescent painter was the sun's high priest and art is indebted to him.