Mr Turner: very Artistic but what about the art?

Turner with mystery painting

Mike Leigh’s film Mr. Turner, a soi-disant biopic concerning the final fifteen years of the life of Britain’s most famous artist , was released in the UK on 31st October following its premiere at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival where it competed in the Palme d’Or. Timothy Spall playing Turner won Best Actor; cinematographer Dick Pope received the Vulcan Award for his outstanding work.

This is without doubt a very artistic film. It drips and oozes its credentials from first to last, with scene after scene composed and shot in homage to famous paintings of the past. Some of these scenes especially the hazy glowing skyscapes on which the camera lingers so peacefully could be Turner paintings. Others are constructed as if we have entered into interiors painted by Dutch or Flemish masters of the previous century.


Film Still Dutch style

Joseph Mallord William Turner was born in 1775 in London’s Covent Garden and died in 1851. Best known for his romantic land- and seascapes in oils, he also worked in watercolour, producing remarkable works of astonishing scale and detail.  The contemporary art world seems to be increasingly enraptured by Turner. This is strange, considering the turn away from classical and traditional forms and the critique of painting which has dominated our cultural consciousness for decades.

The film is being released to coincide with a major exhibition at Tate Britain, from September 2014 to January 2015, a blockbuster entitled “Late Turner: Painting Set Free”. For those who don’t do their sums, the movie covers almost precisely the period of the works being shown in the exhibition. As the intro explains, the show “celebrates Turner’s astonishing creative flowering in these later years”. The fine work of this period was “controversial and unjustly misunderstood”. So, we might say that the film illuminates the life, while the exhibition illuminates the work. Side-by-side, they should open out, reveal, the reasons for a new appreciation of the remarkable talents of this scion of British art.

Why should it matter? Why do we need to engage with Turner now? There are several clues. The first key is in the sub-text to the exhibition title: Turner’s is “Painting Set Free”. The blurb accompanying the exhibition is at pains to position it as a challenge to the myths and assumptions around his later work, to highlight his “radical and exploratory techniques”, and to connect his perceptions of modernity – the machine age – with the deep historical and mythological themes arising from the cultural traditions of his era.

In this revisionary art history discourse, Turner turns out to be okay, even though he was a painter who did pictures of sea battles, ancient cities and historical narratives – Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus, Dido and Aeneas – as well as the extensive hazy sky-dominated landscapes for which he is best recognized today.

Agrippina Landing with the ashes of GermanicusAggripinia Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus

Just to emphasize the point, one of the few late paintings remaining in private hands, Rome, from Mount Aventine, sold for over thirty million British pounds in December 2014, the highest auction price ever for any pre-20th century British artist.

rome from Mt Aventine

Rome from Mount Aventine

To understand what this all means requires a familiarity with the changes in art historical and critical discourse which has been going on hesitantly in recent times. There has been a slow creeping up of representational painting almost hidden away behind the continuing domination of installation, performance and video art since the turn of the millennium. Because of the vast level of financial investment in contemporary art, especially in Britain and the US, it has been impossible to grasp openly the implications of this shift. The writing has been on the wall for a while though. Julian Spalding in 2012 gave reasons “Why you should sell your Damien Hirsts while you can” and the commercially driven imperatives of the late global art market has been attracting more and more bemused critical attention from the artistic world itself – see Isaac Julien’s film Playtime for instance. Could it be that we have to take painting seriously again?

According to the received wisdom of most of the last century, Turner’s late work was pretty terrible. The decline in its quality was thought to be the result of many factors, notably a fog of poor eyesight, ill health, gloom, and personal disarray. The death of his father, who took care of all the most important but invisible elements of his painting practice – he selected and purchased the pigments, ground them, made up the frames and the canvas supports – was a significant loss. The film makes much of this, by the way. The lack of representational accuracy, the domination of his palette by an extremely unsubtle use of chrome yellow (which so disturbed the young Queen Victoria, a scene also featuring in the movie), his vague and hazy outlines, seemingly confused compositions and bizarre methods of working – being strapped to a ship’s mast in a snowstorm for instance – were all seen to explain the strange and disturbing quality of his late work.

steamer in a snowstorm

Snowstorm: Steamboat at a Harbour’s Mouth

Because he was a much appreciated figure in the art world of the time, in no small part due to the enthusiastic support of critic and aesthete John Ruskin, he continued to be hung in the annual Academy exhibitions, albeit in a back room or annexe. His art still sold, due largely to his name and to the patronage of high-born figures such as the Third Earl of Egremont whose lavish family seat in Surrey was the site of many visits and exhibitions. Nevertheless, the late Turner was until recently a rather sad footnote to a brilliant artistic career.

Now, though, we are asked to revalue this work. Late Turner turns out to be a father of Impressionism. His very vagueness and haziness are to be seen as part of a deliberate strategy of radical innovation, a means of overcoming the stringent, boring and traditional practices of British art in order to usher in a new kind of vision consonant with our current understanding of what good painting could be. His late style, the energetic brushwork, the lack of details and the modern subject matter of some works of this period surprised his supporters and lent abundant material to his critics who compared his pictures to lobster salad, soapsuds and whitewash. We moderns however can see beyond this strait-laced view and embrace the late Turner as one of our own.

The British critics so far love the film. Without didacticism or any clear plot or narrative strategy, the points for revaluing late Turner are made clear in scene after scene. Mike Leigh of course is another favoured son of British art. His films are unique in their approach and resonance, built on character rather than narrative and characterized by an almost total lack of screenplay. The actors go beyond Stansilavski, especially those playing the main characters, Turner, Mrs Booth and Hannah the housemaid. The film is very long, at 150 minutes, but never drags or loses the viewer’s attention, in spite of the lack of story arc which is typical of a Mike Leigh film but very unusual in mainstream popular cinema. Given the general public and critical enthusiasm, it seems picayune to complain about the way it depicts Turner as an artist.

If the viewer knows nothing about painting or the practices of plein air work or the use of pigments in oil and water or the physicality involved in working on a large scale in a studio at an easel it all seems so very easy. Turner rushes about with a little leather satchel and produces a pencil from it, drawing something or other in a little notebook. He holds the pencil near its end. He never seems to need to sharpen it. We never get to actually see what he puts in the notebook, or how it relates to the picture he ultimately paints from it. Although he worked astonishingly well in watercolours as well as oils it is impossible to tell what medium he is using at any one time, although when he asks Mrs Booth the landlady at Margate (with whom he finally shacks up) for a bowl of water we must assume those sea views are being painted or sketched in watercolours. When he stands grumpily and half-bent over at an easel scrabbling into the canvas surface with a thick stubby brush we might imagine this is an oil-painting but then he starts spitting on it. Why? Would an artist spit into oil-colour? Surely not. So this must be one of his watercolours, but if so why would he be working at an easel? We are given occasional glimpses of half-finished canvases but they are obscured and the glimpses are transient. We do see some of the finished works – are we to assume these are in fact the very works themselves, or copies of them? – and we see him daubing onto a canvas while the picture is already hung in the annual Academy exhibition. Actually we see a lot of painters daubing away on what seem to be finished works. This would be very strange. Finished paintings were meant to be dried and then varnished before entry, and certainly retouching them in the exhibition itself would be most peculiar.

The publicity for the film makes much of the fact that the actor Timothy Spall went to great trouble to get his painting and drawing right, taking art lessons for two years. If so, his art teacher has a lot to answer for.

I was, in short, astonished that an artistic film about an artist would take so much artistic licence with the art itself. I then came across an excellent piece in the Guardian by Andrew Wilton, “A brush with Mr Turner: why can’t films about painters get the painting right?” (The Guardian, Monday 27 October 2014). Wilton is a world expert on Turner. He is on the Turner House Trust and was consulted by Mike Leigh and his team, but already they had decided what they were doing with the film and any advice Wilton may have given them was apparently superfluous. Wilton called it a “deeply moving and beautiful fim” but, modestly, commented that “it’s not quite the Turner I know”. He gave his reasons, which are simply stated and based on the art itself. For example, Turner’s sketchbooks are full of tiny water colours full of topographical and atmospheric detail, showing delicate and subtle observation. His oils, for example the famous “Steamer in a Snowstorm” (exhibited 1842) were painted with great care, although you’d never know it from the way the act of painting is shown in the film. As Wilton comments, Spall’s depiction of Turner’s painting practice is full of smears and spits and swiping, which is what modernism has asked us to believe, because we are meant to see this film as a demonstration that Turner, great British artist, was after all a modernist, like we are today, and not one of those boring traditionalist representational painters who worried about technique and composition. Wilton also addresses the myth that Turner was some kind of abstractionist. Although the Tate show claims to do otherwise, it reinforces it, casting Turner as a rival to the American abstract expressionists. Wilton is so right: this draws us away from the real quality of Turner’s art.

Wilton’s comments infuriated many readers. It is a real education to go through all 106 of them. The great majority pour scorn on Wilton for failing to recognize that this is a “film”, not a “documentary”, which means apparently it doesn’t matter in the slightest whether it gets the details of the art right or not. According to this logic, Turner could have been painting Jackson Pollocks for all it would matter to the viewers. As one said, “why can’t art snobs appreciate artistic licence?” and compared the problem to that of World War 2 movies using the wrong tanks. A few commentators tried to bring the issue round to the key question, namely the fact that how you put paint on canvas makes a difference to the results you get. But the majority thought these arguments smacked of elitism. If you know how art is produced you are an “expert” and so you should shut up about “movies” because you make it less fun for others. So art critics are not allowed to be film critics, because they don’t understand that “screenwriters on non-documentaries” can put in and leave out what they please.

There is a problem, though. What people see in a film, especially one which claims to be about a real historical artist and how he made his actual artworks (ones now worth millions of dollars) is likely to be what they understand to be the truth of it. This is not the place to discuss the contentious problem of historical truth in cinema, but it certainly warrants some more consideration than the viewing public is willing to give in this case. It seems, rather, that what they like is the depiction of an artist who is ugly, unattractive, badly dressed, poorly spoken, gross and often vulgar, having it off with the unfortunate eczematic housemaid at random intervals, enjoying himself with his landlady and generally behaving just like an early nineteenth century Bad Boy might be expected to behave. Yes, that is the artist we like to see today, and if it means we think he spent his time spitting all over his canvases, that just adds spice to the mix.