There are some artists whose final works have a special frisson attached to them. Late Rembrandt. Late Beethoven. All mortality is there, we are supposed to understand: the grave opens up and yet they cleave to existence, reporting back from the edges of the infinite. Maybe old Ludwig Van is not a bad comparison with Turner. Both were products of the enlightenment, but their final tonal experiments were greeted with horror, as they circled around their themes, as if pacing the cells of their own imagination.
Certainly some of Turner’s later oil paintings have a febrile quality: great whorls of paint. Coruscating wreckage and doomed ships. Grey vortices. Lilac dawns and apricot skies. The endless thrashing waves. Take ‘Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth Making Signals in Shallow Water’ (1842): the viewer is practically sucked beneath the surface along with the struggling vessel. Or ‘The Wreck Buoy’ (reworked 1849), in which Turner, then aged 73, takes one of his own seascapes from 40 years earlier and fashions in it a kind of apocalyptic offshore portal.
But there are other Turners. There’s the Turner of Margate: domestic, humble, going out to see the day, to look at the sea, to paint the boats, the water, the clouds. Turner’s watercolours from his latter years, such as ‘Wreck on the Goodwin Sands’ (1845), tend towards abstraction in their economy, but they are always founded on observation.
Tonal variation becomes everything, and you read these moments as a series. No one work is more significant than another; there is enormous democracy in Turner’s vision. He doesn’t so much show what paint can do, but what paint is: part of the world, an element. Everything, he seems to say, changes from moment to moment: the landscape, the sky, the sea, history. You cannot stop these changes by painting them, and the true freedom is in accepting that. J A T
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