REVIEW: At MFA, ‘Turner’s Modern World’ explores JMW Turner’s evolution from romantic to modernist | theater arts

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The slave ship

Turner’s “Slave Ship (Slaves Throwing the Dead and Dying Overboard, The Coming Typhoon)” by Turner, 1840, remains his most controversial work. The painting depicts a slave ship in the distance as a typhoon approaches. In the foreground, enslaved men, women and children, still chained, are visible in the seething sea.




BOSTON — A ship, sails furled, is buffeted by rushing ocean waves as it glides into the blood-red sunset.

The sea boils, the sky darkens. A typhoon is imminent. The ship threw its cargo – enslaved men, women and children – overboard. Cuffed hands pierce the waves, as seagulls wait to pounce on their prey. A leg, still chained, juts out of the water, fish swarming eagerly around it.

JMW Turner, in “Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhoon Coming On)”, was by no means subtle about the subject of the painting, first shown at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1840, published in conjunction with Britain’s International Abolitionist Campaigns.

As critics debated whether or not handcuffs could float, Turner, an abolitionist, made a statement. Not only were these human beings discarded as nothing more than cargo, they didn’t even have the slightest chance of survival. And it was intentional – the ship’s “cargo” was insured and payments would be made as long as death was not due to natural causes. Such was the case in 1781, when the captain of the Zong ordered 132 slaves thrown overboard when the ship’s drinking water ran out. The incident, which was included in Thomas Clarkson’s “The History and Abolition of the Slave Trade” (a second edition was published in 1839), is believed to have inspired Turner’s painting.

“Slave Ship”, acquired in 1899 by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, is at the center of the presentation by the museum of the “Modern World of Turner”, the third and final stage of this flagship exhibition. And the only one of the three to show “Slave Ship,” a Turner said too fragile to travel.

On view until July 10, the exhibition, organized by Tate Britain with the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, and the MFA Boston, brings together more than 100 of Turner’s paintings, watercolors, drawings and sketchbooks. The show includes “Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water” from the Clark Art Institute, “Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps”, from Tate Britain and “The Burning of the Houses of Lords”. and Commons, October 16, 1834,” from the Cleveland Museum of Art.







Rhine Falls at Schaffhausen.jpg

“Fall of the Rhine at Schaffhausen”, by JMW Turner, is presented as part of “Turner’s Modern World”.




Turner, heralded as one of Britain’s greatest artists, was known for his luminous landscapes, his dramatic compositions and his depiction of the world around him, a world full of turmoil.

Born in 1775, Turner grew up at a time of cataclysmic change in Britain and around the world. Throughout his life, Britain was at war, or engaged in a war, beginning with the American Revolution. The French Revolution soon followed, along with the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812. During his lifetime, he witnessed the Industrial Revolution with its steam-powered ships and trains and the introduction of gas streetlights. Queen Victoria would ascend the throne, slavery would be abolished and later slave ownership, and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels would publish “The Communist Manifesto”.

For many, Turner is the epitome of the “rags to riches” story. Born to a barber and the daughter of a butcher, Turner would have been destined for similar occupations had he not been considered a child prodigy. He entered the Royal Academy in 1789, aged 14. His first watercolour, “The Archbishop’s Palace, Lambeth”, was accepted into the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1790. He was 15 years old. But too often, Turner is praised for crossing socioeconomic barriers while holding tight to his Cockney accent. Was it really such a feat for a white man of his day? A man of considerable talent, with clients who were willing to ignore his gruff ways and eccentricities in favor of his jaw-dropping work?

The exhibition, as it is presented, can be mistaken for a retrospective of his work, as one moves from gallery to gallery and sees the work on sight progressing from his beginnings at the academy until his last years as an accomplished artist of the Romantic Movement. Instead, the show should be seen as documentation of his evolution as an artist; from the boy who sought royal patronage and glorified acts of war in his paintings, to the man who later created images that spoke of the need for reform, the negative impact of colonialism and imperialism and lasting effects of war.

Turner entered the Royal Academy at a time when artists were discouraged from painting contemporary subjects. Instead, as a student, he would be taught to draw from plaster casts of Greek and Roman statues. But as Turner traveled in these early years of his career – to France, Switzerland and later Venice – he filled sketchbooks with his contemporary surroundings, making drawings and watercolors of technology and workers. Presented in the first gallery of the exhibition, these works will emerge from his sketchbooks and slip into his paintings. In the “Fall of the Rhine at Schaffhausen” (1805-06), the famous waterfall in the Swiss Alps catches our attention. Below, a woman rushes to save her children from the draft horse fights. Here nature is a mighty force, the tribulations of mankind play out in the most insignificant way.

In the gallery that follows, we see Turner, as a young man, seeking royal patronage. But at the same time, he struggles to find that unique voice that would make him the most famous landscape painter. Here, the 11-foot-wide “England: Richmond Hill, on the Prince Regent’s Birthday” is designed specifically to catch the eye of the royal court. But here, too, there are landscapes of stranded canals and tall country estates with lime kilns in the foreground.







Living room style hanging pictures

In one gallery, Turner’s wartime works are hung salon-style, as they would at the Royal Academy.




In a brooding deep red gallery, the exhibition transitions to a ‘War and Peace’ themed section, where paintings of his early and late portrayals of war are hung in salon style, such as they would have appeared alongside other works exhibited by the Royal Academy. Here, his changing attitude towards war is exposed. His much-loved work, “The Battle of Trafalgar, Seen from the Starboard Mizen ‘Victory’ Guys, commemorating the British defeat of the French and Spanish naval forces, hangs near his last ‘Field of Waterloo’. Instead of celebrating the triumphs over Napoleon in his final defeat, this somber play is a portrait of the aftermath of war, he no longer favors his country’s triumphs.

In the center of the exhibition, among the paintings of Parliament on fire and “The fall of anarchy (?)”, in which anarchy appears as a skeleton mounted on a horse, is the gallery “Causes and campaigns” , where Turner comes into its own. , addressing parliamentary reform, freedom of expression and tackling contemporary issues, such as the abolition of slavery. This is where “Slave Ship” holds court.

The final gallery in the living room is, by design, pristine white, clean and modern. The ‘Modern Painter’ section highlights Turner’s development over the last decade of his life, his shift to even more atmospheric paintings, his focus on light and atmosphere. The gallery is the culmination of an exhibition aimed at celebrating Turner as a modern artist. Yes, Turner was unusual for his time, as his works addressed social and political causes and change in a way no other artist of his time did. Yes, he was at the forefront of the coming movements of the Impressionists and later the Abstract Expressionists.

But how can we best celebrate Turner today? Instead of looking to the past, its legacy might be better served if this latest gallery gave space to contemporary artists who record and comment on the social injustices, political upheavals and creeping technological changes of our current modern world. Unfortunately, the end of the evolutionary journey falls a bit flat at the end.


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