J.M.W. Turner & Olafur Eliasson at Tate Britain

Sea waves are green and wet,

But up from where they die,

Rise others vaster yet,

And those are brown and dry

– Robert Frost

I went to Tate Britain’s The EY Exhibition: Late Turner – Painting Set Free, an exhibition featuring J.M.W. Turner’s works made after he turned sixty. I didn’t really learn about Turner when studying art history so this exhibition was quite novel to me. For those also not familiar with Turner, he was an innovator in art. I know this word gets thrown around quite often, but he truly was always trying new ways of approaching his works whether it was in his technique, materials, or subject matter. He was known as the “Painter of Light”, and his abstract technique is often seen as a precursor to Impressionism. Yet during his time, he was considered a controversial figure.

As Turner was an avid traveller, I thought I’d prefer his paintings and sketches done while he was travelling, however I was actually drawn to a specific painting featured in a room titled “Squaring the Circle: New Formats from 1840”. Even in his later years he continued to change it up, and in these paintings in particular, he used a relatively small square support. Then I realised the painting I kept staring at for ages (the one on the right in the below photo) is actually part of a pair:

JMW Turner Jan 2015_4Left: Shade and Darkness – the Evening of the Deluge
Exhibited in 1843
Oil on canvas
Right: Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory)
– the Morning after the Deluge –
Moses Writing the Book of Genesis
Exhibited in 1843
Oil on canvas

Turner was influenced by Goethe’s Theory of Colours (quite obviously when it’s part of the title of the painting). These weren’t just a pair of landscape paintings – the technique used for this great biblical flood and its aftermath was a response to Goethe’s Theory – that colour comes from the interaction of light and shade (as oppose to a product of light alone which Isaac Newton believed). Also, “Moses” was not just the biblical character but also a reference to Moses Harris, another dude who studied colours. You know that ubiquitous colour wheel that shows what colours can come from red, yellow, and blue? That was all Moses’:

While I was sitting in one of the rooms browsing through the exhibition pamphlet (and waiting for the right moment to take a photo of the pair of paintings – I still get nervous about taking photos when they’re not allowed!), I learned about Olafur Eliasson’s new series of paintings made in response to this exhibition. Part of an ongoing series which began in 2009 called Colour experiment paintings, he analysed seven of Turner’s works for his series of seven paintings, dematerialising the content altogether, and leaving a spectrum of hues. Shaped as a circle in order to decentralise the colours, I thought they were reminiscent of, you guessed it, Moses’ colour wheel.

There were postcards of Eliasson’s paintings available in the gift shop, and I stood in front of them for ages, carefully comparing them to the pair of Turner’s paintings that I liked. I thought these two were relatively close to the paintings (more so the one on right; Eliasson didn’t specifically identify which of his paintings corresponded to that of Turner’s):

JMW Turner Jan 2015_5Left: Colour experiment no. 61
Oil on canvas
Right: Colour experiment no. 58
Oil on canvas

The Colour Theory was a strong attribute to this exhibition, and I like that it brought together Turner, the “Painter of Light”, to present day Eliasson, who is known for his sculptures and large-scale art installations featuring materials such as light. Whereas Turner incorporates the use of light and shadow in his landscape paintings, Eliasson takes it a step further and removes the content altogether, focusing purely on the hues. But his works are also reminiscent of Moses’ colour wheel which make the connections not just linear but also cyclical.

The EY Exhibition: Late Turner – Painting Set Free as well as Olafur Eliasson: Turner Colour Experiments are both on view until 25 January 2015.


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