Monday, 15 December 2014

The Real Mr Turner

I recently saw Mike Leigh's film, "Mr Turner." It is visually beautiful, recreating, on the cinema screen, some of Turner's best-loved masterpieces, including "The Fighting Temeraire," "Snow Storm," and "Rain, Steam and Speed," and Timothy Spall's performance in the title role is mesmerising, and yet there was something about the film that did not quite convince me. Yesterday, walking through the galleries of Tate Britain's "Late Turner" exhibition, I realised what that something was.

The film is, in part, an exploration of the artist as Demiurge, a man so completely devoted to his art that he cannot find the emotional space to be fully human in his personal relationships. It was not this, however, that I found unconvincing. The Turner of the film has an exclusively visual sensibility, and is wholly adrift in the world of words. The Turner whose world I shared yesterday, on the other hand, was a man who comfortably dined with royalty, and an artist whose paintings engage directly with the written works of Ovid, Virgil and Goethe.

"Glaucus and Scylla," by J.M.W. Turner. The painting depicts a scene from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Photo: Kimbell Art Museum (image is in the Public Domain).

"The Departure of the Fleet," by J.M.W. Turner. The scene depicted is from Virgil's Aeneid, with Aeneas's fleet sailing away from Carthage. Photo: Tate Britain (image is in the Public Domain).

"Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory)," by J.M.W. Turner. Photo: Tate Britain (image is in the Public Domain).

In an exhibition that is very largely drawn from Tate Britain's own permanent collection, I was taken aback at just how much there was new to me, including Turner's "Blue Rigi" paintings, a theme to which he seemingly returned as frequently as Cezanne did to the Montagne-Sainte-Victoire.

"Blue Rigi," by J.M.W. Turner. Photo: Tate Britain (image is in the Public Domain).

At the same time, however, I was drawn to look anew at works I have known since my teenage years. As I research my novels, I always endeavour to see the world through the eyes of my characters, and to exclude any more recent influences, but, looking at Turner's "Modern Rome - Campo Vacino," I now realise that, as he sketched the preliminary drawings for it, he must have been sitting in almost exactly the same spot as I sat to write the first draft of this passage from An Accidental King:

"I stood on the edge of the hill as the sun sank in the sky behind me, looking down on the magnificence of the temples below, with their tall, glowing columns, triangular pediments and gilded statues of the gods. Everything was symmetrical, everything smooth and elegant ... a city planned and laid out by men aspiring to be gods ..."

"Modern Rome - Campo Vacino," by J.M.W. Turner. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Photo: Rosemania (licensed under CCA).

Is this coincidence, I wonder, or was it a subconscious memory of Turner's painting (glimpsed in reproduction - I saw the original for the first time yesterday) that prompted me to sit down on that precise spot and open my notebook?

Similarly, when I wrote these words in Omphalos, I did so on the basis of much research into Medieval near-death experiences, and yet still I have to ask myself whether Turner's "angel standing in the sun," the original of which I had seen many times, does not lie behind them, positioned somewhere in the recesses of my mind?

"He is on a hill, beside an apple tree in bloom. Below him, a deep and raging torrent flows beneath a narrow bridge into a cavern. From where he stands, three paths diverge. One leads across the bridge, into a meadow filled with fragrant flowers. A second runs along the river and descends with it into the gloomy cave ... He turns away. A figure stands beside him, shining like the sun. He thinks, perhaps, it is Saint Michael. With sword outstretched, the figure points his way along the third path, which leads over mountains and deserts to a distant city on a hill, with a bridge of gold extending from it ..."

"The angel standing in the sun," by J.M.W. Turner. Photo: Tate Britain (image is in the Public Domain).

Walking through the exhibition yesterday, the Turner I encountered was a man who walked many of the paths that I have walked myself, preoccupied with many of the same concerns about history, mythology, literature and what it means to be human; exploring these themes through pigments as I explore them through words; never fully satisfied with the canvas he had just completed, but always striving for new ways of depicting a reality at once physical and metaphysical.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

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