One of the most impressive paintings at the “Turner from the Tate” exhibition now on at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum is “Spithead: Two Captured Danish Ships Entering Portsmouth Harbour” (1808).
In some ways it is a run-of-the-mill, realist sea painting of the type common in those days and earlier centuries. It is certainly not what people think of as “Turneresque,” an adjective that refers to the blurry, proto-Impressionistic golden haze-like quality of which the English artist became a master. But what makes this large canvas impressive is the way Joseph Mallord William Turner “sculpts” the sea, making it almost into a landscape.
The ships in the middle distance sit along a straight line, creating a sense of stability that evokes “The Wooden Walls of Old England,” a nickname for the Royal Navy that was then engaged in resolutely blockading the European continent, which was dominated by the French Emperor Napoleon. But this impression of maritime solidity is challenged by the small boats in the foreground. These bob up and down around a great hollow of a wave that also reaches down to us, the viewers — most of the picture is above our eye line, creating the impression that we might be overwhelmed by the next movement of the sea.
The sea, the sense of unbalance, and the isolation from the European continent contained in this painting are all key to understanding the work of Turner, widely regarded as England’s most important artist. Having provided us with the key, this well-stocked exhibition, also presents us with plenty to unlock. There are around 110 works, including 30 of his large oil paintings, sourced from London’s Tate Britain museum.
The sea is a constant presence with around half of the paintings here having some sort of nautical element. Partly this is because Turner was a keen traveler, and often found himself aboard ship, heading for the continent and occasionally elsewhere.
Unlike other English painters of his era, such as John Constable, Turner was far from satisfied with the bucolic scenes of the English countryside. Instead he was strongly drawn to the pastoral classicism of the 17th-century French Baroque painter Claude Lorrain, whose oeuvre grew out of the ruins of ancient Rome and the mythology of the classical world.
Following travels on the continent, he started to paint works that emulated Lorrain, such as “Dido and Aeneas” (1805-06), which uses the legendary Trojan hero and the first queen of Carthage as tiny figures to provide a focus on an idyllic landscape. The theme of Carthaginian history is revisited in “Regulus” (1828), which uses the tragic tale of a Roman general, who died keeping his word, as a starting point for a painting filled with refracted golden light and classical architecture.
With war between Britain and France a frequent occurrence between 1792 and 1815, it was often impossible for Turner to travel to the continent as he desired. This longing is reflected in Part III of the show, “Turner’s Pastoral Vision in a Time of War,” which recognizes this enforced curfew, looking instead at how he turned his attention — one suspects rather unwillingly — to the sort of subject matter that Constable made do with throughout his career, namely English cows and the rather flat scenery of southern England.
This craving for an exotic past suggests a sense of incompleteness and dissatisfaction with the England of his day, part of wider disjunction that was feeding into the contemporary Romantic Movement. In addition to classical scenes evocative of Lorrain, he was also drawn to the wilder, more rugged scenery associated with the Romantic Movement and Edmund Burke’s notions of the sublime.
Some of his earliest travels, undertaken when the continent was out of bounds, were to Wales, Scotland and England’s northwest Lake District, which inspired a dramatic painting of a rainbow “Buttermere Lake, with Part of Cromackwater, Cumberland, a Shower” (1798).
This painting also suggests another famous reason for Turner’s proto-Impressionist style of soft shapes and hazy light, the mistiness and changeability of the British weather.
These two influences, classical idyll and the watery, shimmering light innate to an island nation, come together in Turner’s later works, especially in his paintings of Venice, unsurprisingly as the city is essentially an incarnation of these two qualities — although with more sunshine. It is not hard to understand Turner’s fascination with this aquatic metropolis, nor why his Venetian works have their own section.
The exhibition ends with a couple of Turner’s most impressive works, “Peace — Burial at Sea” (1842), commemorating the death of his friend, the Scottish artist David Wilkie, who died during a Mediterranean voyage, and “Sun Setting over a Lake” (c. 1840-45). Both, but especially the latter, are works of pure Impressionism of the sort that Claude Monet would be painting decades later.
“Turner from the Tate” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum runs till Dec. 18; open 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.(Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,600. Closed Mon. www.tobikan.jp/access/english.html