Turner on tour at the National Gallery Review


Turner on tour: it’s like guys on tour but with a lot more monumental landscape paintings than the average trip to Magaluf.

The title tour is two-fold: firstly, the paintings in this small free exhibition were loaned to the National Gallery by the Frick Collection in New York, returning to London for the first time in over 100 years. Second, these are essentially JMW’s vacation snaps, two gorgeous visions of the ports of Dieppe and Cologne.

They are massive and ridiculously imposing paintings. Turner saw ports as bustling historic and commercial sites, laden with centuries-old activity, ancient architecture, modern hustlers, and a constant flow of goods and ideas.

Dieppe is lively, a hectic maelstrom of masts emerging from polluted waters. The city closes the port, surrounding it with endless columns, windows and roofs, all shimmering around the bustle.

It is Turner who tries to fit into the canon of the great European painters with bolshy arrogance, grand gestures, grand scale

A single boat overlooks Cologne, sitting on a sandy foreshore, crowded with people. A church spire rises behind, a few rolling hills in the distance. It’s calmer, calmer than the other works.

These are aggressively showy paintings. They are Turner trying to fit into the canon of the great European painters with bolshy arrogance, grand gestures, grand scale.

They don’t really work up close: the perspective gets distorted when you get too close, everything stretches and morphs. They are meant to be seen from afar, taken together to draw you in and draw your eyes out.

It’s also why the little details don’t really matter, why the faces are smudged, the bodies all blurry. Everything is in service of the whole, you’re not supposed to sweat the small stuff, you’re supposed to lose yourself in sight, step back and be impressed.

But there is one thing that dominates both tableaux: a huge, massive, throbbing, throbbing yellow sun. It’s a little out of the way in Dieppe, right in Cologne, but its thick fog of light envelops everything in those worlds. It’s bright, shiny, and it jumps out at you, blinding the viewer.

That’s the point. Everything here is designed to dazzle you, overwhelm you, eclipse you and maybe even – if you stare long enough – give you a sunburn.


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