Turner Inspired: In the Light of ClaudeThe National Gallery, London Le Lorrain, Paysage avec les noces d’Isaac et de Rebecca » 1650 Turner, Lever de soleil à travers la vapeur, avant 1807
Le Lorrain, Port de mer et embarquement de la reine de Saba, 1648 Turner, Didon faisant construire Carthage, 1815This exhibition, devoted to Turners 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 paintedlandscapes that encompass more space than the eye can normally see, and depict more intense lightthan 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 enlargednature in such a way as to enhance and reflect human actions and emotions. In an 1811 lecture tothe Royal Academy, Turner acknowledged that this was the main lesson he took from Claudesworks. To make landscape as expressive as history painting, one had to look at Claudes example.Turner analysed how Claude achieved his extraordinary synthesis between observation from life, onthe one hand, and an idealised, powerfully reshaped visual unity on the other. Claude had made, inTurners words, "pictures of bits", not "pictures made up of bits". Turners Keelmen Heaving inCoals by Moonlight (1835) shows this same trait: it subordinates the focused clarity of the shipssails and silhouetted workmen to the broad overall harmony of silver-blue moonlight. No referenceto mythology or to the topography of Italy was needed to make Claude the reference point forTurners composition. It was the balance between observed reality in the detail and its idealcontainer of light and space that emerged from his long study of Claudes art.The chronologically organised exhibition displays Turners changing ways of resolving the battlebetween the part and the whole, between nature and the ideal. If it does less justice to Claudes art, itis due to the comparative gaze that the exhibition adopts, looking down a one-way street fromemulation towards tradition. (Contrarily, I think that the study of Claude in such close proximity toTurner brings out forcefully Claudes use of accurate topography and his narrative skills - two traitsthat most early English aficionados of his work would not have credited him with.) There is asecond and no less important function of this show, however. It concerns the National Gallery itselfand the problematic aftermath of Turners gift to the nation of two of his paintings, to be displayedfor ever alongside two of Claudes works. And it makes our usual access to these works seem lessthan ideal or resolved.Those who saw the exhibition Turner and the Masters at Tate Britain just over two years ago maywonder 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 focuson the Turner bequest. Visitors to the National Gallerys permanent collection can be forgiven fornot recalling the usual display of Turners Sun Rising through Vapour (before 1807) and Didobuilding Carthage (1815) with Claudes Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba(1648) and Landscape with the Marriage of Isaac and Rebecca (1648). Turner had made thedisplay of these four works together a binding condition for the donation of his paintings to theNational Gallery. Thus they persist, long after the rest of Turners oeuvre has been moved to theTate. In a gloomy red-damask-covered vestibule, a crossroads clogged with visitors looking forother rooms, the four works have little chance of attracting the eye. Turner Inspired allows us toreally examine Turners gifts to the nation. The final room of the exhibition is devoted to thedocumentation of the bequest and the chequered history of how the museum has accommodated theartists wishes.Why did Turner so desire his works to be permanently compared to those of Claude? To show thathis accomplishments "stood in the great tradition of European landscape, and that it was possiblefor a modern artist to build successfully on the example of the past", is one answer, which makesTurner seem to be building a memorial to his own ambitions. Ian Warrell, the curator of TurnerInspired, modifies this view somewhat, saying that Turner "did not want his response to be seen asa full stop, but as a signpost that others might follow". That is, his gesture was generous towardsyounger artists, less egoistic than altruistic. I have another suggestion, based less on knowledge ofTurner, more on what we know about how people looked at paintings in Claudes lifetime, and thepractices of hanging pictures that were dying out when Turner made his will. Perhaps Turnerwanted to give the British public the serious pleasure of cultivating their eye through debate aboutpictures.
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 createsuch a paragone or pictorial debate among visitors to their collections. Discussion of the merits ofpaired ancients and moderns, colourists and draughtsmen, was a sociable pastime and a chance forthe display of wit. It might encourage emulation on the part of young artists, showing them theongoing fertility of artistic tradition. But it was also a social practice for consumers of the arts, adisplay of an individuals culture as it was sharpened through genteel debate. The habit ofcomparative looking, the search for paintings essential qualities through the juxtaposition of widelydiffering masterworks, seems to have been essential to Turner as a viewer as well as a painter. Evenif encountering a painting by Claude might initially have caused him to break down in tears at theimpossibility of bettering it, Turner was able to see Claudes works juxtaposed with theachievements of other, very different kinds of painters, which seems to have encouraged his effortsto use Claudes compositions. The final room of the exhibition documents how Claudes paintingswere hung in the collection of Turners patron John Julius Angerstein just as the National Gallerywas being formed. To one side of Claudes Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Shebawas Titian, to the other side Sebastiano del Piombo. Ironically, it was Turners own bequest that wasto fall victim to the change in museology that banished such a period-spanning, category-breachinghang.I had not realised what a headache the National Gallery considered Turners bequest to be untilseeing this exhibition. Even before his death, a modern, "scientific" hang divided paintings intonational schools and groupings of works by individual artists, mainly chronologically organised.The museum tried to break the terms of Turners will, even sought to sell some of the donatedpaintings. Members of the public wrote to the National Gallery to complain about the absence of thefour works from the museums walls, and in 1954 the then director, Cecil Gould, reassured onemuseumgoer that "morally" the bequest was still being upheld even if the paintings haddisappeared, since Turner had already achieved that authoritative status he sought in his pairingwith Claude. But the will was legally binding. And its legacy as a thorn in the museums sidepersists today. The Turner-Claude juxtaposition is an anomaly at the National Gallery not justbecause 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 itspermanent collection any longer. Seeing this exhibition, as well as the 2009-10 Turner and theMasters, has made me see this as our loss.Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude1) Coals by moonlight/Joseph Mallord William Turner2) Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba/Claude Lorrain