• gerard van weyenbergh

Paintings and watercolors by William Turner, 2/2

The figure of the traveling artist

It is a time, after the Napoleonic wars when Europe is opening up again. The grand tour was almost an obligation of artists in the 18th century, and this grand tour was in a way forbidden by the continental blockade. The fall of Napoleon and the reopening of borders will once again allow artists to travel.

But Turner's journey is exciting. He made him completely break with his way of painting.

There is a before and an after Italy.

Italy changes everything with Turner, his colors, his way of seeing the landscape, and even his way of projecting himself into it. In Venice, he undoubtedly found this ideal of exchanges between water, light, atmosphere, and the extraordinary colors that a sunset can take. These are entirely new colorful sensations in London. He is a very sensitive, very intelligent tourist who takes advantage of his travels. What he sees enriches himself and develops his art conception.

One might a little quickly think that Turner is working in front of the motif, but that is wrong. He worked in the studio in the winter in London, and he traveled in the summer, taking quick little notes in notebooks. He recomposes, he reconstructs the landscapes he has seen. And it is all the more interesting because it shows us that this landscaper is, above all, a man who invents. He does not copy nature; he recreates it. There is a demiurgic side to Turner's painting.

The water pattern

Turner seems to be inhabited by a kind of water mystique - water in all its forms is the great subject of his work: ice, fog, lakes, stormy seas. He seems to flood her sheet of water in his latest watercolors, and the watercolor takes its liberty in this water where it is spread.

It is especially noticeable and true in the watercolor titled The Wreck. We feel that the colored material has had complete freedom to circulate on the sheet and that the sea's evocation and this storm is almost an accident. There is a black spot which, it was thought, could represent a wreck. But it is truly experimental research, an almost automatic work. And the comparisons that come before this kind of work, it is rather with abstract art, Asian art of today like that of Zao Wou-Ki or with artists who work in this space of freedom of matter.

Some seascapes, which are views of the sea, are completely astonishing in the freedom and arbitrary choices in their colors, in Turner's technical choices. These are very thick paintings, where he triturated the material with his knife, with his brushes. The paint is crushed, torn off, thrown. There is everything you want on these canvases, in completely arbitrary colors. There are yellows, reds, blues that are not at all natural colors of the sea. And everything is staged in a circularity of the movement of the brush, a large circular gesture. It is already a gestural painting, a painting that is indeed informal, abstract, where the artist has put a few tiny details to attach it to a subject: two, three sails or the tail of a dolphin, but we are really there with the feeling of the sea.

What is funny is this play of transparency of pure colors and the artist's hyper-presence on the canvas. When you look at Turner's Ocean, you first see Turner.

The watercolors of the Tate Gallery

These colored sketches, he painted them for himself. He attached importance to them, personal importance since he kept them all. He put them in boxes, but he didn't want them to be visible. We like to know this approach; we want to know this intimate Turner. Through these thousands of watercolors, one can realize how much Turner was a hard worker, who practiced a kind of daily gymnastics of art. His determination to produce reminds me a little of Rembrandt. I think Rembrandt engraved, drew, or painted every day of his life. It's kind of an obsession. The artist is inhabited by his function and his mission as an artist. At Turner it took on this extraordinary dimension of tens of thousands of watercolors today in the Tate Gallery.

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