Turner’s Modern World at the Kimbell

“Steam-powered anything is one of the backstories of this exhibition,” explains George Shackelford, Kimbell Art Museum’s deputy director and curator of European art, referring to the museum’s latest exhibition, Turner’s Modern World, Oct. 17-Feb. 6, 2022. At first, that statement may seem contradictory, considering J.M.W. Turner is regarded today as one of Britain’s best-known landscape painters. But most of Turner’s landscapes are not the bucolic images of lambkins frolicking in the pastures of the Cotswolds, typical among his contemporaries. Turner’s renderings of England’s natural beauty often included references to the environmental and political changes taking place in a region experiencing Napoleonic wars, an unstable political climate, and a massive industrial revolution.

As a man, Turner was “a curmudgeon,” Shackelford says with a wry smile. “Profoundly dedicated to his calling, contradictory at times, evolving over time. We’re looking at Turner in this exhibition from the 1790s to the 1840s, so we’re seeing fifty years of a human being.”

The exhibition is roughly chronological, with more than 100 paintings spanning from the earliest years of Turner’s career to his latest. (In a roughly parallel literary context, imagine beginning with Jane Austen’s dewy, idyllic countryside and ending in the dirty, black smog of Dickensian London.)

Turner’s iconic depiction of Europe’s largest waterfall, Fall of the Rhine at Schaffhausen, is the anchor of the section dedicated to the painter’s early works. “It’s kind of a classic definition of Turner’s bold, sort of aggressive paint handling,” Shackelford notes. “If Turner had kept on in this vein, he would still be reckoned as one of the greatest landscape painters in art history.”

The exhibition’s second section, Home Front, deals more specifically with life in Britain at the time. Shackelford uses Turner’s 1809 oil on canvas, Ploughing up Turnips, Near Slough as an example. “You may take a look at this painting and you see, ‘okay, misty landscape, some kind of building in the background, some people in the foreground doing stuff.’” But, he continues, there’s more to this story. The building in the background is Windsor Castle, and King George III had recently promoted turnips – previously seen as food for cows – as food for humans. Parliament had also recently enacted laws that allowed landowners to fence in their property, meaning the people in the foreground of the painting were no longer farming common land; they were instead working for other people. “Basically, the painting is about the inequality between the background and foreground,” Shackelford says.

Shortly before the railways sliced through England’s farmland, a network of canals had been carved through the landscape for transporting goods. Turner’s Chichester Canal depicts the radical change the industrial revolution posed on a once pastoral landscape; shadowy images of steamboats navigate their way through a waterway cutting through a lush, tree-lined terrain.

The exhibition’s War and Peace section illustrates the way Turner dealt explicitly with the issue of war on many occasions. Though The Battle of Trafalgar appeared to serve as a patriotic homage to one of England’s greatest naval victories, The Field of Waterloo, painted a decade later, is grimmer. Women in anguish scour the field of the fallen soldiers on a moonlit night as a building smolders in the background. “It’s not a great celebration of the moment where the battle turned in favor of the British and Prussians,” Shackelford says. “It’s a much more mournful contemplation of the consequences of battle.”

Turner was at neither of those battles, but he was present to witness and sketch one of the largest conflagrations in London’s history, which destroyed the Parliament buildings in 1834. The ongoing theme of man vs. nature in the two pictures that resulted is apparent through the images of steamboats futilely attempting to put out the blaze while thousands of spectators stood on the banks of the Thames to watch helplessly.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that two of Turner’s most provocative works in the Kimbell exhibition were never displayed during his own lifetime. A Disaster at Sea addresses the tragic shipwreck of the Amphitrite, which ended with the unnecessary death of more than 100 female convicts and children. The second, known as The Fall of Anarchy, depicts a crown-wearing cadaver on horseback and is believed to have been inspired by Shelley’s political poem about the Peterloo Massacre. Shackelford notes that the crown on the skull represents the suppression of tyrannical power in the form of the ruling classes in Britain and the rise of the voting classes against them.

The exhibition’s Steam and Speed section includes The Thames above Waterloo Bridge, which Shackelford describes as being fundamentally about pollution and, ultimately, climate change. “We’ve got these steamboats pulled up to the bank at the left, we’ve got factories belching out smoke on the right, and the whole thing is this sort of gorgeous landscape of pollution,” Shackelford says, noting that sixty years later, artists such as Monet would come to London specifically because the fog and pollution made for extremely beautiful light effects. A decade later, Turner completed Snow Storm, a work that was met with a mixed reaction among the critics. As the title implies, a steamboat chugs its way through a violent storm, depicted through a maelstrom of paint – Turner at full bore, as Shackelford puts it.

Images of Venice and whaling were the two most prominent subjects of Turner’s final decade, addressed in the exhibition’s final segment. “This is, in a way, the Turner that is sort of lodged in people’s minds,” says Shackelford, pointing out the chromatic brilliance, sophistication of the color schemes, and brushwork that comes alive in a collection of luminous images ranging from the sunny haze of Venetian canals, to harpooning whales in icy Arctic waters.

The exhibition concludes with a trio of Turner’s paintings, including the museum’s own Glaucus and Scylla. The two others represent war and peace: Turner’s 1842 oil, War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet, depicts Napoleon at a moment in exile in Saint Helena. Peace—Burial at Sea bears an image of a dark, smoking ship and was inspired by the death of a friend and fellow artist who died of Typhus and whose body was disposed of offshore.

The 2014 biopic, Mr. Turner, starring Timothy Spall, is worth watching for some further insight into the final 25 years of the eccentric artist’s personal life to provide an even deeper context of his art. “A radical art maker,” as Shackelford describes him. “The way in which he works as a maker of objects is transformational to the history of landscape painting… art is different after Turner than it was before Turner.”