A new exhibition at Tate Britain makes us ask questions about Turner's late style, says Mark Hudson
By Mark Hudson
Vigorous blue brush marks add a threatening, thunderous tone to an image which at first glance appears completely abstract, in which the ostensible focus of interest, Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland, is shown simply as a blank area of paper, as though the great mass of medieval stone had been reduced to a dazzling blur of reflected light. This is one of Turner’s later watercolours, Bamborough [sic]Castle, Northumberland, painted in 1837 when he was 62, and featured in Tate Britain’s new exhibition Late Turner: Painting Set Free.
It’s an image that crystallises our idea of the great British painter as a proto-modernist, a revolutionary figure who paved the way for the Impressionists and the Abstract Expressionists, and who embodies an idea that has gained increasing currency in the way we think about art: Late Style.
There are artists who died young or in their prime. There are artists who went on repeating the ideas of their maturity into feeble old age. And there is a small and select band of artists who were able to go on developing and experimenting into their final years, whose last works become a distillation of everything they’ve done before, transcending the barriers of taste and time: Titian was one of them, so were Michelangelo, Goya, Hokusai, Matisse and, not least, Turner himself.
I’ll never forget seeing Titian’s The Flaying of Marsyas when it was first shown in the West at the Royal Academy’s Genius of Venice exhibition in 1983. The painting, one of a number found in Titian’s studio at the time of his death in 1576 aged 89, and which had been hidden away for centuries in a remote palace in the Czech Republic, had a blasted rawness, a disregard for classical finish that made the other Renaissance paintings around it look effete in comparison.
At a time when the so- called New Image Painters – Baselitz, Schnabel and co – were reviving interest in neo-expressionist painting, the existential cruelty of Titian’s painting, in which a satyr is skinned alive, seemed like a message from the past, telling us that the truly great artist cannot so much transcend the infirmities of old age – failing eyesight and diminished muscular control – as turn them into an aspect of genius, in works that strip back to the essence of things, and which can communicate to any age.
It’s notion that has lost none of its potency. Look at the Matisse cut-outs exhibition which has rammed them in at Tate Modern. When art and culture supposedly belong to the young, when curators look to artists in their twenties to tell us where art is going, what we actually want to see, it seems, is the work of an eighty year old painter too weak to hold a brush, who resorted to scissors in creating images of life-enhancing freedom and joie de vivre.
In the Late Style theory of artistic development, the inevitable loosening of technique becomes a mark not of increasing enfeeblement, but of how certain artists have been able to sum up the whole of art in one career, with an apparently inevitable trajectory from the representational to the abstract, from the classical to the romantic, from the rational to the intuitive.
But has late style become something we perceive even when it isn’t there?
Certainly it’s used by gallerists and curators to lend profundity to the later works of just about any minor artist. How well does it reflect what Turner was actually doing in the latter part of his career? Are his most radical and apparently abstract works really all ‘late’ as we tend almost inevitably to assume?
‘The problem with looking at Turner in terms of late style is that it removes him from the 19th century world he inhabited,’ says Sam Smiles, co-curator of the Tate exhibition. ‘The idea of late style is bound up with the notion that the artist has moved so far beyond the expectations of their audience they have no one to talk to. Their work becomes hermetic and self-referential, communicating better with other ages than their own. But this never happened with Turner. He’d absorbed the idea from Joshua Reynolds, the great artist of the previous generation, of the artist as a public figure, a valuable member of society, with a responsibility to dignify the role of the artist. Turner never lost sight of that. He was looking at contemporary events: the building of the railways and the burning down of the Houses of Parliament. He was still looking for new patrons. The elderly Turner was still very much engaged with his time.’
Far from being a marginalised bohemian, as we like to imagine our romantic artists, Turner was very well known and financially very comfortable in late age, if not super- rich. Nonetheless, the stocky, gruff, resolutely ungenteel artist was seen as a maverick, his later works ridiculed in the press for their apparent formlessness. Turner was notorious for hanging works at the Royal Academy that appeared in Smiles’s words ‘barely there’, then turning up on Varnishing Day – when academicians were permitted to make last minute adjustments – and turning them into finished paintings on the spot.
The notion of late style developed in the early 19th century, when musicologists and literary critics of the German Romantic movement, began reassessing the late works of Beethoven and Goethe. Until then, artistic biography had followed the rise-and-decline model popular since the Renaissance, in which artists peaked in their forties, followed by a rapid decline. But in the ferment of the Romantic era when art from outside the mainstream – folk art and children’s art – began to be valued for the first time, the idiosyncrasies of Beethoven’s late string quartets and late Goethe works such as Faust came to be seen as evidence not of senile eccentricity, but of a stark and summative final vision.
The idea of late style wasn’t applied to the visual arts until late that century, but it rapidly gained ground to the extent that most of us now take it for granted that the raw and the fragmentary are preferable to the classically polished, that Michelangelo’s late, primal Slaves are more moving than the slick, early David, that Goya’s nightmarish Black Paintings, created when he was in his seventies and isolated by deafness, are incomparably greater than his more finished early works.
In short we like the products of late style because they tend to look like the art we like most, Impressionism and the Abstract Expressionism of Pollock and Rothko.
‘Late style gained currency at a time when Impressionism was in vogue among art historians,’ says Smiles. ‘So whatever they saw in earlier art that looked impressionistic, in late Titian, Velasquez and Turner, was acclaimed as proto-modern. Turner’s emergence as a proto-modernist vindicated Britain in the early 20th century, a time when British art was marginalised. But Turner is never simply about the analysis of form or visual effect in the way that say Impressionism is. He never loses sight of the human narrative.’
Certainly Turner didn’t benefit in his own lifetime from the late style theory. Even his greatest champion, the critic John Ruskin, accepted the prevailing view that an artist’s work would inevitably tail off in his final years. Yet isn’t it likely that many of Turner’s quintessential ‘late works’ – and classic examples of late style generally – look the way they do because they simply aren’t finished, rather than because that is the way the artist intended them to look?
Smiles argues not. ‘Turner was producing sketches that were very free, that you might assume to be ‘late’, from quite early in his career certainly from the 1800s.But the paintings he was producing from these were relatively conventional. As his career progressed the gap between his sketch book experiments and his finished paintings narrowed till he was exhibiting works that his contemporaries could hardly accept as works of art at all.’
Works such as the swirling maelstrom of Snow Storm Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, which we now consider one of Turner’s greatest masterpieces, baffled his contemporaries; even Ruskin believed it should not have been shown. Yet at the same time he was producing more finished works, such as The Fighting Temeraire, which were hugely popular.
The question of finish is complicated by the Bequest, Turner’s magnificent gift of the contents of his studio to the nation, now housed in Tate Britain. Alongside paintings that had been exhibited at the Academy, that can be assumed to be pretty much as Turner intended them to be seen, are many in various states of incompleteness – how incomplete we’ll probably never know. Among them is ‘Norham Castle, Sunrise, which Smiles believes is almost certainly unfinished, but which has become one of the nation’s favourite paintings, with its luminous masses of colour, its single cow reflected in a liquidescent plane, which may be water or simply the reflected light of the rising sun.
To a Victorian viewer, the idea of looking at an unfinished painting would have been perplexing. But nowadays most of us aren’t so bothered if a painting is ‘finished’ if it looks right to us. We’re less burdened than our forebears by questions of perfection and permanence. We accept that there’s little in life that is definitively completed, that the boundaries between things and states of being and the spaces around them are a lot more provisional than we once believed. That much modern science has taught us.
But the great exemplars of late style got to that sense of cosmic uncertainty long before today’s physicists – in a stark realisation of the vanity of earthly institutions and understanding, but an exhilaration too in finding a few last moments of energy and inspiration, a vindication by the creative process itself.
That’s why the final works of Titian, Michelangelo and Turner still speak to us as ‘modern’ even over centuries. Faced with the great unknown these artists weren’t afraid to let on how much they still didn’t know.