An exploration of Romantic art as Ilaria Riccio reviews the exhibition “Turner: The Sun is God” at the National Gallery of Ireland in collaboration with the Tate.
Art history enthusiasts and casual museum-goers are in for a treat with one of the latest exhibitions at the National Gallery of Ireland. For the first time, a selection of almost ninety paintings from English artist J.M.W. Turner are on display in Ireland, in collaboration with the Tate. The exhibition, titled Turner: The Sun is God, offers visitors an insight into the work of one of the principal exponents of Romanticism in Britain, particularly his use of watercolours and his privileging of nature and landscapes. The exhibition is divided into five sections organised by themes, which share the artist’s characteristic techniques and the Romantic focus on emotions and subjectivity in favour of an accurate, realistic representation of nature. Indeed, several places recur in the paintings in the exhibition, particularly the Lake District, Switzerland (especially Lucerne and its lake), Margate, and Italy (most notably, Venice), suggesting the emotional charge of these places for the artist (hence their heavy presence in Turner’s paintings). Alongside nature, mythological scenes also feature in Turner’s oeuvre (for instance, Ovid’s Metamorphoses).
The Romantic focus on emotions and the emotions that nature transmitted to the artist is evident in the first section, which introduces visitors to Turner’s work. Fittingly, this introductory section is titled “Memory, Imagination and Synthesis” and encompasses the essence of Turner’s oeuvre. Inspired by landscapes of particular emotional significance for the artist, Turner’s paintings can be interpreted as a synthesis of his memory and his imagination, brought to life on the canvas through bright watercolours in an attempt to crystallise that emotion (and, perhaps, induce an emotional reaction in the visitors). Several finished paintings, unfinished works and sketches make up this section, including a portrayal of Paestum, a former Greek settlement in southern Italy. As a southern Italian myself, it was fascinating to see a Romantic rendition of a familiar place and the emotions it transmitted to the artist. The remains of a Greek temple almost become one with the sketched dark clouds on the horizon, perhaps signifying turbulence and uneasiness.
Inspired by landscapes of particular emotional significance for the artist, Turner’s paintings can be interpreted as a synthesis of his memory and his imagination, brought to life on the canvas through bright watercolours in an attempt to crystallise that emotion.
The introductory section of the exhibition touched upon Turner’s fascination with landscapes and nature, which is the focus of the second section, “Facing nature”. In line with the canon of Romantic art, there is no attempt to portray nature realistically in Turner’s paintings, where realism makes room for a representation of nature as it relates to the artist’s subjectivity and emotional status. Unsurprisingly, Turner was particularly fascinated not only with landscapes but especially with natural phenomena. This heavy focus on these phenomena might be related to how they metaphorically represent the mental and emotional state of the artist; natural phenomena, too, need not be realistic since what matters is the deep, emotional connection between what is painted on the canvas and the artist's subjectivity.
These points on nature and its representation in Turner’s oeuvre expand in the next section of the exhibition, “Light and atmosphere”. The paintings included in this section are probably the most representative of Turner’s work, as they focus heavily on the role of light in creating atmospheres. Specifically, the colours in these paintings are bright to suggest the primary role of light (conveyed with yellow tones) in what Turner was attempting to transmit through his work. The light is so bright, almost blinding, that it is difficult to distinguish the other elements in the painting, further strengthening the privileging of emotions over the accuracy of detail.
The move from the brightness of the first three sections to the next leaves visitors bewildered: dark green walls welcome the paintings of the section “Darkness is visible”. While still centred on the same subjects as the other paintings, this selection departs from the vibrancy of warm tones to make room for an exploration of darker shades. The representation of landscapes remains the same as in previous works but, differently from the previous section, darkness complicates distinguishing all the elements included by Turner on the canvas. It is in paintings such as the ones included in this section that the relationship between nature and emotions is particularly prominent: whereas bright (water)colours suggest positive responses in those observing the paintings, observing these darker paintings becomes troublesome. The natural phenomena previously presented vibrantly are now brought to life using dark shades of, for instance, blue and black, suggesting internal turmoil and unsettling visitors, unprepared to face such turbulent, dark emotions.
The natural phenomena previously presented vibrantly are now brought to life using dark shades of, for instance, blue and black, suggesting internal turmoil and unsettling visitors, unprepared to face such turbulent, dark emotions.
This detour into darkness leads back to the light- almost in a symbolic journey along different emotions that, despite some drawbacks, ends on a positive note. The final section, “The Sun is God," gives the title to the entire exhibition, encompassing the essence of Turner’s oeuvre. “The Sun is God” is a quote widely attributed to Turner and is the leitmotif of his work: alongside being ever-present in his paintings in the bright shades of his landscapes, it could also be interpreted as an additional reference to emotions. The sun gives life and light, a light that is powerful enough to overturn darkness, both literally and symbolically.
Turner: The Sun is God is a journey along the oeuvre of one of the primary artists of Romanticism in England. The exhibition offers a deep dive into how the artist translates his emotions (generally resulting from his encounters with nature) onto the canvas through an explosion of (water)colours to match his subjectivity. Visiting this exhibition is a profoundly personal experience: the Romantic privileging of emotions over realism results in Turner’s work being open to interpretation according to how visitors relate to the emotions of the artist, in a triumph of individualism.