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“Mr. Turner” – Britain’s Foremost Artist Paints the Big Screen

January 7, 2015

Happy New Year! I thought to kick off the 2015 blog season on a slightly different note with a review of “Mr. Turner”, Mike Leigh’s movie about the British landscape painter, JMW Turner (1775 – 1851). As an art lover and appreciator of Turner’s exceptional talent (although not an expert of his work), I couldn’t wait to grab popcorn and get my front row seat for a viewing; as films about art and artists rarely grace the big screen. Like all biographical movies, I was eager to see how accurate Turner’s portrayal would be, while jotting down small notes during scenes to the likes of: “did this really happen? – do more research” or “is this right? – look into” behaving like some impromptu fact-checker to ensure the historical accuracies were indeed accurate. As this movie might be the wider public’s first introduction to the genius that is Turner, a forefather of the modern art movement, I was eager that Mike Leigh get it right and not succumb to the “Hollywood-ization” of today’s cinema. Artists do lead colourful lives–so much of their experiences (be it in Victorian Britain or in 1930s Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) are engendered in their artwork. Leigh’s real accounts and thorough research did not diminish this authenticity, but clearly enhance it.

The film is beautifully shot with sweeping scenes of landscapes and coastlines, capturing Turner’s inspirations for his vivid paintings. Among the many memorable scenes, one that particularly stood out is an aerial shot of Timothy Spall (who plays the feisty Turner) in full Victorian garb walking on an empty beach on the English shore–a nod to his individuality, and a lonely genius. The cinematography is truly exceptional with no detail too small or overlooked. However, many of “Mr. Turner”‘s scenes were very short, jumping from one location to the next, sometimes with a lack on sequence; over the course of this two and a half hour epic, at times it did seem to drag on a bit hinting to a shortfall in continuity.

 

The movie also makes light of Turner and his contemporaries within the Victorian art world. One of my favourite scenes of the movie takes place during Varnishing Day that the Royal Academy of Arts–where artists during this final day of preparation add last minute details or corrections to their masterpieces. Adding to this slightly frenzied as well as visually stunning sequence is the salon-style of hanging that was popular at this time. Walls would be draped from the ceiling to the floor with paintings; the utmost and distinguished pieces as deemed by the judges were placed at eye-level, pride of place for any exhibitor for the public to look on. There is a wonderful exchange between Turner and his other famous colleague, British landscapist, John Constable (whose work is currently on show at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Constable: The Making of a Master). Turner, mocking Constable’s obsessively intensifying the last finishing touches of red pigment to his piece  adds his own crimson seal (in the form of a buoy), sharply contrasting his painting’s completely blue hues of a seascape.
 

I was also intrigued by the relationship between Turner and the prominent Victorian art critic, John Ruskin (who probably isn’t well-known to most modern day audiences–notably sued by the artist James Whistler for libel, penned a less than favourable review of the latter’s Nocturne in Black and Gold). In one such scene, Turner and the very youthful and opinionated Ruskin have a lively discussion about gooseberries, which then transitions into a debate regarding the essence of a landscape painting. Ruskin, a strong proponent of Turner’s work (which I was rather surprise to learn…was in fact true), believed that the artist’s landscapes were “true to life”, much more so than any work by Claude Lorrain (the continent’s premier landscape artist from the 17th century). Whether or not this frank discussion took place, I don’t know. But, Ruskin did in fact makes these feelings known in his writing, Modern Painters (from 1836).
 

One of Turner’s patrons was the 3rd Earl of Egremont, whose country manor, Petworth House’s Old Library became a studio space for the great artist. Although the house isn’t mentioned by name in the film, a couple of scenes depict Turner painting in his atelier at Petworth, with large windows overlooking the estate’s beautiful grounds (from January 10th until March 11th, Petworth will be opening Turner’s studio to the public for a special exhibition, entitled Mr. Turner). As an architectural historian, I also wanted to highlight the work of another artist that is silently referenced in the movie, Grinling Gibbons, the Anglo-Dutch “Michelangelo of wood” from the 17th century. Two scenes from “Mr. Turner” at Petworth take place in the beautiful Carved Room, (I must admit, my eyes did wander away from the actors to admire the richly carved panels, cascading with fruits and foliage framing the wonderful collection of Dutch paintings), initially created by the Baroque-style carver, Gibbons. Although, the Carved Room in its present form has been modified with time and successive Earls, Gibbons’s accomplishments still stand tall. The artist’s amazing sculptural prowess has touched England’s decorative history, examples of his masterful work are peppered throughout the UK: sculpture of James II outside the National Gallery in London (attributed to Gibbons), St. James’s Church in Piccadilly and the King’s Apartment at Hampton Court Palace just to name a few.
 

Amongst the many grumbles and grunts uttered by Turner in Leigh’s interpretation, his travails are apparent and dedication to his artistic craft is undeniable.

 

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