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Turner's Modern World review – a master out of his element

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There is a painting in this strangely contradictory exhibition of English labourers gathering turnips in a field near Slough. It is almost as banal as it sounds. A few cows, vague vegetables, the workers cursorily indicated in smeary oil paint: Turner appears comparatively indifferent to this scene of rural life, except as a pretext for his true interest. Which is nothing less than the overwhelming heavens above, and the distant apparition of Windsor Castle dissolving in a haze of light.

If you were to consider this painting in terms of the modern world – as this show urges, on principle – you might want to think about the self-sufficiency of the workers; or the inequality between royal and commoner; or the tyranny of land enclosures. After all, JMW Turner (1775-1851) lived through the long misery of successive enclosure acts, abolishing the traditional rights of poor people to farm the common land.

The king in that castle in 1809, the date of the picture, was George III, sometimes known as Farmer George. So perhaps those turnips are ironic. Or perhaps not (the Turnip King was George I’s nickname).

Whatever can be said about this work as a sociopolitical statement, nothing about the painting itself seems to occasion or sustain it. It is neither history painting nor social critique. Turner is no Gillray, Cruikshank or Hogarth; he isn’t Gainsborough, painting Mr and Mrs Andrews presiding over their endless English acres. And for all the curatorial attempts at Tate Britain to make an abolitionist of him, Turner is certainly no William Blake. So the premise of Turner’s Modern World – that he is emphatically a painter of his times – feels unsteady from the start.

That he lived in the age of steam, iron foundries and gleaming new railways, of revolutions, wars, rotten boroughs and outrageous taxes is unarguably apparent from the pictures themselves. Turner was one the first English artists to paint a railway train, hurtling through a vortex of steam and rain. He painted demobbed soldiers, scattered like toys at the bottom of his canvases; and Napoleon on Elba as an absurd peg doll planted in an otherwise stupendous twilight, the sunset effects doubled in watery reflections beneath.

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Contemporary viewers would apparently have known that the blacksmith and his butcher customer, in a smithy scene, are arguing about prices because of the pig iron duty bill of 1806, yet another war tax. But my sense is that the only way they would have known there was an argument going on at all, in this murky, distracted picture, was because Turner’s title told them so.

He goes to Edinburgh, and the curators remind us that the New Town is under construction, but that is not evident in his painting of kilted Scots farming cattle (and capering, in ludicrous approximation of Highland reels) on Calton Hill. He paints a provincial election day and you long for Hogarth’s powers of observation. Turner’s forge scenes are all myth and molten lava – dark gods moving about in nuclear explosions, the surfaces of which are now cracking, as if they too were forged in the furnace. Give me the white-hot heat of Joseph Wright of Derby’s An Iron Forge any day.

Turner, the great sea dog, painted more than a thousand seascapes. Whole galleries are devoted, here, to paintings that happen to include naval battles, wrecks, tall ships and inchoate hints of whaling expeditions. They are nearly always seascapes by other means. Even his late Slave Ship, based on the horrendous 1781 episode of the Zong, a British ship whose murderous captain had thrown sick or dying slaves into the ocean to collect insurance money for those “lost at sea”, is deeply ambiguous. It is hard to reconcile the limbs, still manacled, disappearing into the torrential brine in the foreground with the flaming heavens above, struck through by one of Turner’s vertical bolts of pure light.

The Slave Ship, 1840 by JMW Turner.
Slave Ship, 1840 by JMW Turner. Photograph: Getty Images
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In late Turner, the sun transforms matter into energy, turning the substantial world into a mirage. All the local details listed in his titles simply vanish into air: there are no whales, wrecks or specific coastlines. And trying to tie him down to facts in the staggering masterpieces in the final rooms of this show is at best contextual, at worst a distraction. In Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus! Another Fish!, the vessel, its crew and even the scattering seabirds are not much more than an audience for the radiant light flooding the seascape. That there was no whaling ship called Erebus, as the caption informs us, seems a bathetic detail.

A timeline forges its way round the walls of this show. Regular texts keep us up to date. In some ways, this is an excellent history of Britain that just needs to be applied to a different painter. On the other hand, the approach has considerable consequences for the viewer.

It disqualifies at a stroke the Turners many people love best – the glowing landscapes, seascapes and evanescent watercolours, nearly abstract – in favour of figuration. A picture can hardly be a sign of the times, as it were, unless it contains a steamship, a pump or a redcoat. The same curators mounted one of the greatest Turner exhibitions ever – Late Turner, at Tate Britain in 2014 – and it might be argued that they cannot repeat that sublime presentation of his vision. But it’s a steep drop to rooms of black-and-white prints, duff reportage sketches by the teenage artist and industrial scenes by other painters.

This emphasis on history also draws the attention away from the magnificence of Turner’s art. A beautiful painting of a town turning into an apparition in a diaphanous red sunset? The town is industrial, the sunset probably the result of light passing through particles of pollution – not that Turner would have understood this. Quite apart from the condescension of this wall text (incidentally contradicted in the catalogue, where the artist’s scientific knowledge is given proper credit), it hardly squares with Turner’s way of painting. Never mind the art, look at those greenhouse gases.

Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus! Another Fish!, exhibited 1846.
Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus! Another Fish! by JMW Turner, exhibited 1846. Photograph: Tate
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The exhibition pulls in two directions: between fact and art. It wants to make a journalist out of Turner, at times, hiring a boat to get a better view of the Houses of Parliament going up in flames in 1834; but the watercolours, and even the official oils, are anything but mimetic records. It relates the atrocity associated with A Disaster at Sea – another horrifying tale of passengers thrown overboard, in this case female convicts. But the painting itself, glutinous as gum, the clouds bursting with claggy oil showered upon victims as flimsy as the nymphs on a stately home ceiling, is obsessed with elemental upheaval far more than death.

Also, £22 a ticket, with no free-admission days, seems an outrageous tax on our experience of art, given that almost all of the hundred and more works in this show belong to Tate Britain in the first place. And the price is scarcely reduced for students or senior citizens. So much for access. The most famous loan here is Rain, Steam and Speed, borrowed from the National Gallery. And just in case this wild masterpiece doesn’t make it absolutely clear what a steam train looked like, a scale model is stationed right there in front of it.



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