“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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”