Mr Turner and the art of atmospheric transcendence

Sun setting over a lake

Classical art has never interested me, or anything else much classical or traditional for that matter. I studied the fine arts and practiced as an artist for many years, always considering myself a creator with a twist that often saw me on the periphery. Sometimes I sat a little closer to mainstream than other times but generally, I was with an element of being on the outer.

So as l made my way from Melbourne to Canberra on the weekend to see an exhibition of Joseph Mallord William Turner works travelling from the Tate Gallery in Britain, l questioned why l was going. Apart from catching up with a dear friend and seeing the exhibition with her, what was I going to get out of viewing this collection of what I considered, classical paintings? I liked modern works with lots of colour, works that were unafraid to challenge the norm and thinking, to push boundaries.

My friend and I queued to enter the National Gallery with the other hundred or so people, all of which looked so much older than we did and which only cemented my idea of ‘old fashionedness’ around this exhibition. We finally entered just as the rain began and followed the hoards up the escalator and through the corridor to the start of the show, peeling scarves and hats as we walked. When we reached the exhibition, my friend and l agreed to part so we could view the works at our own pace.

I looked over the first few, sometimes past the shoulder of other onlookers, and was not surprised at what I saw. The paintings were classical in style and colour – mainly dark with little movement or life.

But as the paintings progressed chronologically, I grew more interested. I began to see movement in choppy waves that made my stomach sway and darkness give way to wispy, luminous clouds where all merged in colours of creams, light ochres and rust with only dabs of blues and greys. I found myself growing emotional. Ridiculous l thought, to feel this way. I felt uplifted as I weaved into their vaporous motion. Atmosphere appeared lighter than air, as if an atmospheric transcendence of air.

Lyrical radiance shone from the ‘Stormy sea with dolphins’ and ‘Whalers’ paintings, and yet when they were painted in the 1830’s and 40’s, they were criticised for their lack of finish. Critics routinely mocked these and other paintings from the artist and said that they would be just as intelligible if they were hung upside down. They accused the artist of using cream, chocolate, egg yolk and currant jelly to paint.

It was then that I realised that this man was a true master. He had pushed boundaries and challenged thinking. Impressionists like Monet, Renoir and Degas who were known for their fresh understanding and interpretation of light and speedily painted outdoor scenes, all learnt from Mr Turner.

I moved closer to the ‘Whalers’ to inspect Mr Turner’s brush and was surprised by the mustiness of the wooden frame. Quickly, I was asked to move back from the painting. I hadn’t realised I drew in that close. But that’s what these works did to me, drew me in.
I went to sit in the centre of the room, opposite ‘Sun setting over a lake’, with no horizon line and fleeting brushstrokes of weightlessness covering the canvas. I had my own transcendence at that point.

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