Saturday, 28 January 2012

Rainbows, Fireworks and Blue Sky: 'Turner and the Elements' at Turner Contemporary, Margate

The day the press went to Margate could not have been better chosen. Blue, blue skies and a fiercely low winter sun infused the North Kent seaside town with a sense of spring optimism which overcame the occasional glimpses of boarded up shops and appalling town planning.

I have visited the Turner Contemporary once before - I saw the last show Nothing in the World but Youth  - which although it contained mostly work I have seen before and was massively overhung with a kind of everything but the kitchen sink approach, was still enjoyable. NITWBY featured quite a few works by a youthful Turner and I think that many of the visitors to this new gallery expect to see something by the artist the gallery takes it name from. So taking the touring show Turner and the Elements after its run in Germany and Poland must have been an easy decision for the gallery director.

I am not generally a massive fan of Turner - I find his grand oil paintings too swishy and indistinct. Turner and the Elements focusses mainly on small sketchy watercolours which to my mind are much more interesting and contemporary looking. Quickly made and still fresh these works on paper are free from the detailed additions of people and boats that many of the oils have and thus avoid the twee factor.

JMW Turner, Storm at Sea, circa 1820-30, watercolour on paper, ©Tate, London 2011

The show is divided into elements - earth, air, water and fire - which as the curator explained were a major preoccupation of Turner and his contemporaries. This is apparent in Turner's eye for the spectacular, relishing the natural - sunsets, rainbows, new moons - just as much as the unnatural - smelting works, ship wrecks and fireworks. As is often said of many great historic painters I can imagine that today Turner might have been a film director. One particularly strange OTT painting The Evening of the Deluge features a swirling vortex of birds that pull you into the centre of the painting like Dorothy's twister while a crocodile looks on - Hitchcock's The Birds as well as The Wizard of Oz are the obvious filmic comparisons.

Turner came to Margate as a child and returned often throughout his life staying in a house more or less on the site that the gallery now occupies. This link with the gallery and the town is explored in the show by the addition of some of his Margate paintings. The coming home of these works - and the time this has taken to happen - is quite moving.

JMW Turner, The New Moon or 'I've Lost My Boat, You Shan't Have Your Hoop', exhibited 1840, watercolour on paper, ©Tate, London 2011

Turner said that 'the skies over Thanet are the loveliest in all Europe' - referring no doubt to the beautiful sunsets and huge sky-over-sea view that the North Kent coast gives. But on this sunny February day I couldn't help thinking that he was referring to the loveliness of a blue sky at the seaside.

Cathy Lomax

Turner and the Elements
Turner Contemporary, Margate
28 January - 13 May 2012

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