Doubts were widespread until late June if summer would ever come this year to the South of France. Skies were overcast, and when it rained constantly with temperatures dropping to near freezing points, organisers at the Caumont Centre d’Art — which opened the Turner exhibition in the otherwise normally sunny city of Aix-en-Provence — feared not many art enthusiasts, especially foreigners, would cross their threshold.
Their fears proved unfounded as bright, sunny and lengthy days finally arrived. So did visitors who were stunned to discover the sun-washed 130 or so masterpieces on display, as flamboyant and colourful as the outdoor scenes in Aix-en-Provence itself. It is a pleasure to see these paintings again and again.
The title “Turner and the Colours” is aptly chosen for the exhibition follows, in a thematically advancing course, the astounding career of one of the greatest British artists of all times. As one studies the landscapes and seascapes placed in a chronological order, one cannot miss the point that chiefly self-taught, Joseph Mallord William Turner (born in London in 1775) was initially inspired by Baroque and Renaissance-age Italian and French geniuses such as Titian, Canaletto and Poussin.
The Caumont Centre d’Art in France gave an opportunity for art enthusiasts to experience the astounding work of one of the greatest British artists of all times
After ‘Fishermen at the Sea’, that he painted at the age of 21, Turner would remain fascinated throughout his long career by vast, panoramic outdoor scenes and the sun in all its moods, forms and colours.
An important part of Turner’s career was his incessant travels, first between London and the Scottish countryside; then from 1802 until the end of his life in 1851, to France, Switzerland, Holland and Italy. The sea and the skylight in Venice would remain one of the main sources of his inspiration. This was evident in his work, especially in ‘The Deluge’.
From 1840 onwards Turner would also try a new experiment and would excel in it as he did in all his other daring artistic adventures. This was a kaleidoscopic angle through which he saw the mountain peaks of Switzerland, the riverbanks of France and the sea waves of Holland and Italy — painting hallucinating scenes in a circular style that would later become his trademark. His painting ‘Morning after the Deluge’ is another one of such spheroid creations.
Turner was, however, way ahead of his time and his contemporary art critics often made fun of what was then considered his incomprehensible and mind-boggling method. But there were also those who readily recognised his genius and qualified him as a visionary and a magician of colours.
Another source of Turner’s inspiration would remain the Baroque age French-Italian painter Claude Gellée, known as Le Lorrain, in whose works horizons in land and sea depictions strike onlookers as what appear to be scenes from an earthy paradise. In his lifetime Turner donated two of his paintings to the National Gallery of Art in London, but under the condition that they be displayed with a work of Le Lorrain between them. Today you still see that setting intact at the National Gallery.
The arrangement of Turner’s paintings in the Caumont Centre d’Art in Aix-en-Provence emphasises his gradual abandoning of visual landscapes as he matured and the increasing confidence in his imagination and the fantasies he created. Works painted in the final years of his career such as ‘Moses writing Genesis’ fall into this category.
Though the reputation of the ‘Painter of Light’, as he is often called, chiefly depended on his oil works, JMW Turner also created a large amount of watercolour masterpieces and his contribution in this field too remains undeniable.
The exhibition began on May 4th and will last until the September 18th at Centre d’Art, Aix-en-Provence, France
The writer is a journalist based in Paris and can be reached at email@example.com
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 14th, 2016