Sunday, 18 July 2021

Turner @ Tate

Toby Upson visits Turner's Modern World at Tate Britain and notices connections to Rothko's Seagram murals which are now also installed at the gallery.

It is rare that the cool air swirling around a Victorian painting gallery adds something romantic to the works pinned, steadfast, to their often colour-block walls. But here I am, sitting on a rather welcoming bench, taking in both art-work and air-con. Specifically, I am in Tate Britain (the Turner’s Modern World exhibition), looking at a rich mushroom wall, and Philip James de Louthbourg’s The Battle of the Nile, 1800, whilst a dead whirring of electrified air reverberates about me. In front of this particularly crisp image, with the sound of treated air rushing into the enclosed gallery, I am enamoured by something particularly atmospheric. Moved by something harrow in its formal hollowness. 

Drama lies in action, and as I sit, feel, taking in de Louthbourg’s painting, I am left thinking about the stories not told, or rather those possibilities that are foreclosed, in this high-sea battle scene. De Louthbourg’s is an allegorical work - a modern history painting: crashing about the foreground little dinghies helplessly drift, manned by a hodgepodge crew of ship mates and masters; framed by battleships, the core of the composition is dominated by an eruption, a blaze, through which we are just able to discern a shadow of a ship’s mast within the vortex of white-hot flames and plumes of smoke. It seems fitting that such a powerful visual record of this ‘crucial British victory’ over the French (as described in the display caption), is executed in such a definitive manner. Personally, it is as if the weight of the finish is meant to recall or mirror the weight of nationalist pride felt amongst ‘Great Britons’ upon reading about this important win that secured the Mediterranean and re-affirmed British sea power. Action is deployed here, in other words, to propagandic affect.


Philip James de Loutherbourg, The Battle of the Nile, 1800, oil on canvas


De Louthbourg’s patriotic scene apparently had a profound influence on Joseph Mallord William Turner, leading to his first paintings of modern warfare (although Turner’s direct response to this painting, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1799, cannot now be traced). Indeed, de Louthbourg’s use of brilliant colour, to add astute highlights to areas of action within the composition - areas such as rip-roaring flames in the glimpsable distance - recalls those touches of white, zinc, and bold primary colours used by Turner to evoke a sense of deep awe within his later works (War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet, c.1842, is a case in point). Unlike de Louthbourg, whose use of contrasting hues render this newsworthy battle spectacular, Turner uses colour accoutrements to enhance the sublimity of his subject matter. In other words, colour is what gives Turner access to romance. Indeed, it is colour under Tuner's hand that lets loose possibilities.

Joseph Mallord Turner, War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet, 1842, oil on canvas


As a curator I am a big lover of serendipity, I thrill off the spontaneous, superfluous, and sometimes superficial connections between things (those who know me will recognise my skittish pull to eke the meta out if everything). Prior to opening the Turner’s Modern World exhibition, Tate set about rehanging and moving some of its 'masterpieces' further down the Thames. Dislodged from their position in Tate Modern, Mark Rothko's Seagram Murals - large weepy canvases composed from hazy rectangles of red and maroon, that, to quote Jennifer Campbell’s Garageland review of the works, ‘overlap and hover [...] creating a new colour that [ones] eye cannot fix’ - now sit in the older of the Tate siblings. Positioned next to, and curated as to be in conversation with, a free display of yet more Turner's (part of the Turner Bequest), I am a little lost as to the language the two artists are conversing in, aside from jubilant praise from Jr to Sr Modernist.

Maquette for installation of Mark Rothko's Seagram murals at Tate gallery, 1970

More than just a pairing of formalist romantics, who sought to break with the old through chromatic affect, this later, free, exhibition had for me more of a resonance than the 'blockbuster' that is Turner’s Modern World. Perhaps this is due to curatorial intent: Turner’s Modern World is framed as a historical survey, ‘examin[ing] what is meant to be a modern artist during Turner's lifetime’, whilst the conversation between Rothko and Turner is one of deep admiration and personal resonance - Rothko gave his Seagram Murals to the Tatebecause of the wonder and respect he had for his predecessor's work.


Like any good discourse, these two exhibitionary conversations add so much and reward each other. Or rather, I should say that the insights gained from the historical survey enlivened the Rothko-Turner discussion for me. For example, we soon learn from Turner’s Modern World that the artist wasn't much 'good' at figurative work: the people who dot his early allegorical and genre paintings lack a liturgical festering; they seem more blob-like, banal, than active agents in a story - just like those naive figures in Rothko’s early canvases. Indeed, as with Rothko, as Turner's career ticks on, the figures in his compositions dissolve like a mist into the eerie scenes that beautifully haunt the Turner Bequest - the unfinished oils left in the painter's studio, such as Norham Castle, Sunrise, c.1845, are perhaps some of the strongest works in either of the Tate displays. This is not to say that the 'best' of Turner's paintings are purely surface - like a Rothko - works such as Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On), 1840, and Peace - Burial at sea, 1842, have an intoxicating narrative within their composition, inviting prolonged engagement and moral rumination through their choice use of figuration and pools of transcending colour. There is nothing propagandic about these evocative scenes, they suggest subtly, with the harrowing quality of their lament lying in the cataclysmic drama unfurling within us viewers.


Joseph Mallord Turner, Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On), 1840, oil on canvas

Mark Rothko, Red on Maroon, 1959, oil on canvas

And on that note, where better to turn for a 'modern' point of conversation than Rothko's ecstatic tomb. Originally commissioned for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York, the Seagram Murals perfectly encapsulate the modernist spirit embodied by Rothko: ‘I am interested only in expressing basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on.’ It is of note that Rothko subsequently pulled this commission two years after receiving it in 1960, as his ‘ambitions for the works grew, [and] he no longer saw the restaurant as an appropriate location for his paintings.’ It was following this move that he gifted the series to Tate in 1969. Personally, sitting with this Rothko series recalls that feeling of sitting with de Louthbourg; the entombing installation feels like another form of scripted address: ‘one must feel, feel the sublimity of your emotions.’ In this way, rather than inviting romantic reflection, the Seagram Murals dictate subjective state in order to cause affect. To me this runs counter to Turner’s romantic ideas, where even the subtlest action invites subjective speculation – complicating the ‘basic’ in Rothko’s ‘basic human emotions.’ 


If New York's mid to late 1900 modernity played out in high-rise hotels, the modern world Turner was working through was very much the high seas. Indeed, instead of the secular church of the dining hall, Turner's faith lies in the sun, the sky, and the storms of the world - aspects of his life narrated for us in Tate's Turner’s Modern World. The earthly dramas captured by Turner, via his lush mists of colour, do not so much push for a self-referential search for ‘basic human emotion’ - as Rothko seeks - but invite romantic rumination, freeing, in their dispersed nature, polyphonic possibilities. Just as the cool-air of the painting gallery slowed me down to contemplate the shallow script of de Louthbourg’s battle, so to the audible winds rushing through Turner's later, unbounded, work whistle a hollow tune - a romantic call asking for a response.

Toby Upson


Joseph Mallord Turner, Sunrise with a Boat between Headlands, 1840-45, oil on canvas

Joseph Mallord Turner, Norham Castle, Sunrise, 1845, oil on canvas


Turner’s Modern World 
Tate Britain, London 
until 12 September 2021.


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