"Turner and Venice," Oct. 9, 2003-Jan. 11, 2004, at Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1P 4RG England
I kept thinking of J. M. W. Turner's luminous watercolors and oils of Venice, like his The Dogana and Madonna della Salute, Venice (1843), as I arrived in that city on an extremely cold and cloudy day last October. I didn't see the sun for two days, but became intimately acquainted with pelting rain. Perhaps I should have been more aware of Turner's "Storm Notebook."
The boat I was waiting for to take me up the Po River couldn't make it into Venice because of high seas in the Adriatic. I ended up in a hotel for 48 hours until I was bused to the boat on the Po. Happily, I was ensconced at the Hotel Europa and Regina, which proved to be not only comfortable today but also for Turner, when the inn was simply the Hotel Europa, on two of his three trips to Venice.
I found this out and much more about Turner and Venice thanks to Ian Warrell, collections curator at Tate Britain, when I landed in London to review his glorious exhibition "Turner and Venice." Warrell has provided a great deal of new information on Turner's three visits to La Serenissima -- in 1819, 1833, and 1840 -- in the exhibition and even more in the show's excellent catalogue. (If you can't get to London where the show will be on view to Jan. 11, 2004, you might want to plan a visit to the exhibition's only other venue, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Feb. 15-May 30, 2004.)
It's hard to imagine almost any Turner show today not being a success, something not assured in Turner's day as he attracted both ardent supporters and detractors. Yet his Venice paintings were among the most widely embraced in his oeuvre. Many were snapped up shortly after they appeared at the Royal Academy annual exhibitions ,where Venetian scenes made up one third of the works Turner exhibited between 1833 and 1846.
Turner's first foray to Venice in 1819 provided him with lots of material -- 160 pages of pencil sketches and a few watercolors -- that he really didn't put to much use until the 1830s when the city was growing popular with the British. Still languishing from war, a rather tatty Venice served to some as a warning of the dangers of loosing political resolve. For others, this formerly great sea power still cast its magic spell. Byron wrote several poetic works, including his Ode to Venice, that referred to the city and helped to focus the British collective imagination on La Serenissima.
One startling fact, as Warrell points out, is that Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) was actually in Venice for less than four weeks of his life. He spent a total of six months in Rome, yet it was Venice that Turner seemed to inhale and internalize in a way no other painter ever has. One look at any of his most atmospheric works from the '40s, and your whole being senses some heady essence of Venice, even without knowing the exact locale, as in Turner's Fishermen in the Lagoon, Moonlight (1840).
The "Turner and Venice" exhibition is a marvel not only because of the works -- about 50 Turner oil paintings, twice that many watercolors, plus notebooks, sketches, prints, maps, and art by others -- but also because it just so illuminating in regards to Turner. The first half gives an introduction to Canaletto and other sources and influences on Turner while integrating this material with Turner's works.
One sees Turner acknowledging Canaletto, for example, in his oil Bridge of Sighs, Ducal Palace and Custom House, Venice: Canaletti Painting (exhibited 1833) with its tiny figure of Canaletto at his easel tucked into the lower left. Turner then paints works from similar vantage points as Canaletto as if challenging him on his own turf, and finally ferrets out lesser-known parts of the city that he makes his and his alone.
The second half of the show, which includes many drawings not seen before or only rarely on view, takes the viewer on a tour of Venice, section by section, via Turner's works. How wonderful to be spared a dull chronological gallop.
The loose handling of Turner's later works can be studied next to tighter, more detailed earlier ones. Many works commissioned as pairs or used as such can be studied together, like the late, glowing Going to the Ball and Returning from the Ball, both exhibited in 1846.
"Turner and Venice" presents the full range of Turner's achievement. Many late watercolors, that our eyes read as wonderfully abstract, have only been appreciated as fully realized works recently. Turner's storm and moonlit scenes are especially memorable. But if you prefer Turner's historical and literary scenes, paintings like his Grand Canal, Venice (1837) with its ecclesiastical figures, can dazzle as well.