Goulburn Writers Fest Masthead

Turner and seeing the light

Heather Wallace

The name Turner was one I’d always associated with prim watercolours, depicting a bucolic paradise in 19th century Britain.

In reality, Turner was witness to, documenter of, and commentator on, decades of extraordinary events that included natural disasters, political upheavals and social change. If he was alive today, he would no doubt be an influential voice in social media, with images framed as much by his ideals as the light he captured.

In his lifetime, Turner produced 550 oil paintings, 2000 watercolours and more than 30,000 paper works. The majority are held at London’s famous Tate Gallery, but until 8 September, a selected number are on show at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in the exhibition Turner from the Tate: The Making Of A Master.

It’s fair to say the exhibition overturned all the vague impressions I’d had about Turner’s work. The NGA deserves praise for how it is curated, showing how Turner tackled subjects over years and decades and how his style set the scene for Impressionism decades after his death in 1851.

The common element is Turner’s use of light and colour, bringing extraordinary depth to each subject. His evolving style was most obvious for me in the collection of maritime paintings. A piece from the early 1800s, showing a British victory over a Dutch fleet, is controlled and precise. Details like the aloft Union Jack and the structure of the ships are clearly defined to convey a message about Britain’s mastery of the waves. As a piece of propaganda it shows the strength and confidence of a nation in a time of war.

In contrast, a piece 30 years later is Turner’s interpretation of the sinking of a convict ship bound for Australia’s shores: 133 female convicts drowned when the Amphitrite was ripped apart and her captain refused French assistance to rescue the women, claiming his orders were to set them down only in New South Wales. Only three of the women aboard survived. The incident caused outrage and Turner’s depiction mirrors that anger. The canvas is a violent maelstrom, colours swirl together showing the violence of the storm. It is a world of chaos, the only glimpse of the ship is its listing mast. Unlike the earlier work where controlled composition is a statement of power, here the colours crashing together capture the tragedy.
Moving through the exhibition also means taking a tour of 19th century Europe. Rome, Venice and the Alps all feature, so if you’re feeling the travel big bite, this is a good way to see the world through the eyes of a kindred spirit.

You also have a hint of what Turner would have made of Australia’s scenery in the beautifully set out Family Activity Room. This is a space purpose-designed to give parents and children the chance to experience Turner in a unique way. Full of goodies ranging from iPads, crayons and aqua brushes, the room conveys the sense of light and space in Turner’s work. A wooden rowboat full of seaside treasures invites young sailors to climb aboard and find their own artistic inspiration, while coloured LED lights illuminate their adventures. A panorama is projected against one entire wall, with central images from the collection framed by video recordings of Canberra and the southcoast that bear uncanny similarities to Turner’s own landscapes. And finally, budding artists can help build up a colourful mural by adding transparent vinyl shapes to clear perspex panels mounted over a painted seascape, all the while exploring how the translucent shapes change colour over different base pigments.

Whether your interest is in art, history, travel, social commentary or adventure there is something for all ages to enjoy, and to be struck by Turner’s light.

Turner from The Tate: the Making Of A Master runs until 8 September 2013, and is supported by a full calendar of events ranging from masterclasses, film screenings (including Pride and Prejudice and Master and Commander), high tea and talks. The Family Activity Room is open from 10 am – 5 pm Mon-Sun including public holidays.


Heather Wallace

Heather’s career in arts and heritage PR spans 15 years, with highlights including working for Sean Connery at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and promoting Australia’s World Heritage places. Her blog, Myths and Misadventures, (http://mythsandmisadventures.blogspot.com.au/), is about life lessons we can learn from the Romans. You can follow her on Twitter @Missmythology. More about the Author

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