Poor Mr Turner

All the things that Turner was, all the habits, the places he visited, the people he knew, the timeline of the events of his life is very well documented. One can pick up any book on Turner and even the poorest ones will give you this. These are the things which art historians dwell upon, mainly because they are not artists; it is fairly safe to say that hardly any of them know what it is like to feel the inward thrill, in the isolation of the studio, to see the paint which you apply becoming a new reality. How many non-painters could know the pleasure of the smell of the paint and turpentine (one of my tutors said that he turned to oil painting simply because of the smell of the turpentine) and the feel of clean brushes. Then, at the end of a long painting session, spending hours sometimes, simply evaluating, a mixture of self-criticism and pride, the results of the day.

I was hoping for at least some of this in Mr Turner and I didn’t get it. What I did get was a film about personal relationships with people, many of whom were caricatures and some set pieces, scenes pushed home in a pretty blunt and unsophisticated way to push the narrative along and try to explain some of his painting (e.g. the Fighting Temeraire scene which, even if it was true, showed none of what must have been a tremendously important event for Turner). We got a progression of already well known events, almost clichés, from Turner’s life. Starting the film more than half way through Turner’s life, we are expected to know of his prolific prodigiousness, his great travels, his hard-gained knowledge of classical history (he struggled hard to ‘better’ himself this way, in the same way as he struggled hard to be a better painter of the human form, in both ways ultimately failing) and his remarkable bravura in paint gained through treating a plastic medium like oil paint in the same way as he treated watercolour, of which his huge ability was outstanding; that is by laying down layers and layers of transparent paint over a largely pale, heavily built up base. This is the finishing off which Turner did in the Academy.

None of this was given in the film and anyone without much knowledge of Turner would surely have wondered what the big deal is with Turner. What we got was a rude and shuffling old man, a dirty old man, a man who could grunt in 100 ways.

On Channel 4 a couple of weeks ago, Timothy Spall gave an account of his experience in making the film and he also talked about his understanding of Turners great early days, his great knowledge and brilliance. It is no good having to add an appendix to the film in this way because this should have come across in the film itself.

It is inexplicable why Ruskin was treated so cruelly, a precocious, giggling child, who actually was, in spite of some of his well known shortcomings, a great thinker, a very gifted artist (a better observer of nature than anyone of his time, including Turner) and a very thoughtful man. It seems to be open season of kicking Ruskin, just as it seems to be for Constable, who was again treated with contempt by Leigh via Turner. The scene in which Constable is seen to be struggling to knife vermillion onto one of his late canvasses, only to be mocked by Turner, was a cruel one. Constable, a more humble and honest artist, had recently lost his wife (we know this because Hadleigh Castle is hanging on the wall as Turner breezes in and this was painted in Constable’s desperately sad days after his wife’s death). It is curious that this scene was produced as it only serves to make Turner seem like a jumped-up barrow boy, a show-off, and again, this is because Mike Leigh, like historians and writers on art have no idea what it really is like to be an artist, and especially a painter.

I wanted to see Turner really seeing inspiration, not occasionally scrubbing and spitting on a canvas or scratching in a token way in a sketchbook. In the end it was a morbid film which portrayed decay and miserable death and was no more than a portrait of a thoughtless user.


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