Turner/Rothko, Tate Britain

On Sunday I decided to take a stroll over to Tate Britain to investigate the Colour & Line part of the Turner exhibition. The reasoning for this ran approximately thus: it is free.

Turner (or Joseph Mallord William Turner to be precise) is an artist who I am not naturally disposed to like. I dislike landscapes. I dislike pictures of boats. I dislike pictures of farm animals. Turner, on the other hand, loved all three. In fact, if he had had to paint a picture of a cow sailing a boat through Venice he may well have expired then and there from the sheer joy of it all.

As I mentioned, the bit I actually came to see was the Colour & Line section where you can see things like how Turner worked, the pigments he used, the influence of Goethe… but before you get to this you have to walk through a lot of paintings by both Turner and Rothko. It is this first set of paintings which prompted this blog entry and, as ever, a tirade.

Turners juxtaposed with Rothkos. This, as The Telegraph points out, “isn’t just dumb, it’s misleading”. Rothko was an abstract expressionist. His work is visceral, rebellious, transcendental, intimate, emotional, abstract… and so on. Turner was a Royal Academician. His work is unequivocally representational and follows a long tradition of history and landscape painting. Just because he tried to save a bit of cash/time by sketching three seascapes on one canvas and the result looks a bit blobby/stripey one cannot assume he and Rothko are like minds reaching out to one another across the centuries.

Something else which wrong-footed me was the fact that most of the Seagram Murals are currently in a little room nearby. The Seagram Murals are the result of an abandoned commission from the Four Seasons restaurant. Rothko is noted as saying something like “I hope looking at these makes every bastard one of you lose your appetite”. One leaves this room-o-fun and comes face to face with a corridor of Turners, each betraying an interest in and affection for humanity as well as a very traditional allegorical and literary vocabulary. One man read Nietzsche the other read Goethe…

It as at this point I must confess I read very little as I moved around. Perhaps the text would have cleared everything up, however I didn’t read it so it hasn’t. Apparently Rothko’s children say their father felt a tremendous kinship with Turner and that may very well be true, however it doesn’t cancel out the fact that the ethos which informs the work of each artist is completely different. With this in mind it’s probably not a great surprise that I found the comparison rather shallow – it was, in essence, saying that one artist is like another because they both make messy shapes on canvas.

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