Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude

Discussion of the merits of paired works used to be a sociable pastime. Has the fashion for chronological museology narrowed our experience, asks Sheila McTighe

March 15, 2012

Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude

The National Gallery, London

Until 5 June

This exhibition, devoted to Turner’s career-long dialogue with his great predecessor Claude Lorrain, offers the visitor a chance to stretch the powers of their own vision. Both Turner and Claude painted landscapes that encompass more space than the eye can normally see, and depict more intense light than the eye can usually bear. Both of them located their human subjects within a monumentally enlarged environment, making human figures seem almost diminished. Yet each artist enlarged nature in such a way as to enhance and reflect human actions and emotions. In an 1811 lecture to the Royal Academy, Turner acknowledged that this was the main lesson he took from Claude’s works. To make landscape as expressive as history painting, one had to look at Claude’s example. Turner analysed how Claude achieved his extraordinary synthesis between observation from life, on the one hand, and an idealised, powerfully reshaped visual unity on the other. Claude had made, in Turner’s words, “pictures of bits”, not “pictures made up of bits”. Turner’s Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight (1835) shows this same trait: it subordinates the focused clarity of the ships’ sails and silhouetted workmen to the broad overall harmony of silver-blue moonlight. No reference to mythology or to the topography of Italy was needed to make Claude the reference point for Turner’s composition. It was the balance between observed reality in the detail and its ideal container of light and space that emerged from his long study of Claude’s art.

The chronologically organised exhibition displays Turner’s changing ways of resolving the battle between the part and the whole, between nature and the ideal. If it does less justice to Claude’s art, it is due to the comparative gaze that the exhibition adopts, looking down a one-way street from emulation towards tradition. (Contrarily, I think that the study of Claude in such close proximity to Turner brings out forcefully Claude’s use of accurate topography and his narrative skills - two traits that most early English aficionados of his work would not have credited him with.) There is a second and no less important function of this show, however. It concerns the National Gallery itself and the problematic aftermath of Turner’s gift to the nation of two of his paintings, to be displayed for ever alongside two of Claude’s works. And it makes our usual access to these works seem less than ideal or resolved.

Those who saw the exhibition Turner and the Masters at Tate Britain just over two years ago may wonder why this show is opening now, on a topic that was also a centrepiece of the earlier display. The answer seems to lie here, in the collaboration of the National Gallery and Tate Britain to focus on the Turner bequest. Visitors to the National Gallery’s permanent collection can be forgiven for not recalling the usual display of Turner’s Sun Rising through Vapour (before 1807) and Dido building Carthage (1815) with Claude’s Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba (1648) and Landscape with the Marriage of Isaac and Rebecca (1648). Turner had made the display of these four works together a binding condition for the donation of his paintings to the National Gallery. Thus they persist, long after the rest of Turner’s oeuvre has been moved to the Tate. In a gloomy red-damask-covered vestibule, a crossroads clogged with visitors looking for other rooms, the four works have little chance of attracting the eye. Turner Inspired allows us to really examine Turner’s gifts to the nation. The final room of the exhibition is devoted to the documentation of the bequest and the chequered history of how the museum has accommodated the artist’s wishes.

Why did Turner so desire his works to be permanently compared to those of Claude? To show that his accomplishments “stood in the great tradition of European landscape, and that it was possible for a modern artist to build successfully on the example of the past”, is one answer, which makes Turner seem to be building a memorial to his own ambitions. Ian Warrell, the curator of Turner Inspired, modifies this view somewhat, saying that Turner “did not want his response to be seen as a full stop, but as a signpost that others might follow”. That is, his gesture was generous towards younger artists, less egoistic than altruistic. I have another suggestion, based less on knowledge of Turner, more on what we know about how people looked at paintings in Claude’s lifetime, and the practices of hanging pictures that were dying out when Turner made his will. Perhaps Turner wanted to give the British public the serious pleasure of cultivating their eye through debate about pictures.

Patrons and amateurs of the arts in the 17th century hung together works by Poussin and Raphael, Domenichino and Titian, Veronese and Charles Le Brun, even commissioning new works to create such a paragone or pictorial debate among visitors to their collections. Discussion of the merits of paired ancients and moderns, colourists and draughtsmen, was a sociable pastime and a chance for the display of wit. It might encourage emulation on the part of young artists, showing them the ongoing fertility of artistic tradition. But it was also a social practice for consumers of the arts, a display of an individual’s culture as it was sharpened through genteel debate. The habit of comparative looking, the search for paintings’ essential qualities through the juxtaposition of widely differing masterworks, seems to have been essential to Turner as a viewer as well as a painter. Even if encountering a painting by Claude might initially have caused him to break down in tears at the impossibility of bettering it, Turner was able to see Claude’s works juxtaposed with the achievements of other, very different kinds of painters, which seems to have encouraged his efforts to use Claude’s compositions. The final room of the exhibition documents how Claude’s paintings were hung in the collection of Turner’s patron John Julius Angerstein just as the National Gallery was being formed. To one side of Claude’s Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba was Titian, to the other side Sebastiano del Piombo. Ironically, it was Turner’s own bequest that was to fall victim to the change in museology that banished such a period-spanning, category-breaching hang.

I had not realised what a headache the National Gallery considered Turner’s bequest to be until seeing this exhibition. Even before his death, a modern, “scientific” hang divided paintings into national schools and groupings of works by individual artists, mainly chronologically organised. The museum tried to break the terms of Turner’s will, even sought to sell some of the donated paintings. Members of the public wrote to the National Gallery to complain about the absence of the four works from the museum’s walls, and in 1954 the then director, Cecil Gould, reassured one museumgoer that “morally” the bequest was still being upheld even if the paintings had disappeared, since Turner had already achieved that authoritative status he sought in his pairing with Claude. But the will was legally binding. And its legacy as a thorn in the museum’s side persists today. The Turner-Claude juxtaposition is an anomaly at the National Gallery not just because all the other Turner paintings and all of British art has been relocated to the Tate collection, but because the museum does not apparently wish to create such comparative displays in its permanent collection any longer. Seeing this exhibition, as well as the 2009-10 Turner and the Masters, has made me see this as our loss.

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