Turner's abstract works demonstrate his confidence in his viewers
Source:The Guardian Author:Mark Brown Date: 2014-09-09 Size:
Tate Britain shows the artist's most radical and daring works, including nine square paintings hung together for the first time...

A late painting by JMW Turner, Dawn of Christianity, is part of the exhibition at Tate Britain, Late Turner – Painting Set Free.

Baffled Victorian critics thought JMW Turner had genuinely lost his marbles with much of his later works, particularly nine controversial square paintings, which Tate Britain is to celebrate by hanging them together for the first time.

"I think it is a showstopper," said co-curator Sam Smiles in a room where the nine works are being displayed, almost as a show within a show. "Here you had somebody actually reconsidering what a painting is."

The nine canvases are part of what is, remarkably, the first major exhibition to examine Turner's late career, from the age of 60 until his death at 76 in 1851.

Turner got an incredibly bad press in these later years; he was often mocked and derided, with even a devoted admirer, in the shape of John Ruskin, describing his work by 1846 as "indicative of mental disease".

But the critics were wrong, the show argues. Smiles said: "One of the things we are trying to combat throughout the exhibition is the idea that the old age of an artist might see flagging creativity, that it might be a time for the feet to go on the handlebars and the artist just coasts to the end doing the things the public expect."

In fact Turner was often at his most radical and daring in those later years, not least in the nine square paintings that are being shown in newly restored frames.

The paintings were all made on a square support measuring 78.7cm by 78.7cm but some were painted round and octagonal. They are all history paintings, whether mythical, biblical or – in the case of Peace – Burial at Sea, which depicts the burial of the painter Sir David Wilkie off Gibraltar in 1841 – contemporary.

Works such as Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory) contain some of Turner's most dazzling displays of colour and are among his most challenging works.

Smiles said he had a degree of sympathy for bewildered Victorian visitors. "It is a very high bar he has set for his viewers to clear. He wants them to be intellectually engaged and to cope with these very difficult surfaces. I'm not trying to exonerate his critics but I think this would have been as difficult as walking into Kahnweiler's [Picasso's gallerist] in 1910 and thinking 'what the hell?'"

The Tate Britain show brings together 180 Turner works, many of them already part of the Turner Bequest the gallery looks after.

There have, though, been some significant loans. Two of the square paintings are being lent – one from Belfast, the other from Fort Worth in Texas – and a gloriously vibrant watercolour of Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland, a work which spent much of its life owned by the US Vanderbilt family, is being shown in a museum for the first time.

At the other end of Tate Britain, the contemporary artist Olafur Eliasson, who created The Weather Project – the wildly popular Turbine Hall commission at Tate Modern in 2003 – has been given a room where he is showing new works inspired by Turner.

He said Turner's ability to shape and frame light in his paintings had significant impact on his work. But there was more than that to admire. "Turner in the more abstract works expressed a confidence that the viewer would be able to make up their own narrative. That is very radical and it is about trust – it is about having confidence in people being able to see. If one looks at the world today, if you look at museums around the world – the idea of trust is so underrated. Institutions often treat viewers as if they were blind, they can't see anything."

[Editor] 刘建兰