J.M.W. Turner at the AGO

I didn’t have work today, so I slept in a bit and then went to the Art Gallery of Ontario to see the J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free exhibition.

I got to the AGO early, so I had some time to walk through some of the general admission exhibitions. I walked through the A New Look: 1960s and ’70s Abstract Painting at the AGOSuperReal: Pop Art from the AGO Collection, and Drawing, Je t’aime: Selections from the AGO Vaults exhibitions. I felt oddly inspired by what I saw, especially the abstract paintings. Gene Davis’ Black Panther made a particular impression on me.

Black Panther by Gene Davis
Black Panther by Gene Davis

If you stare at the painting for any length of time, the lines start to become fluid. The image is not static despite its solid, almost stoic, construction. The canvas is the colour of an untouched canvas; the black lines are crisp and sharp, except for a small section in the top left (it looks like a smudge you get from the heel of your hand when you move your computer monitor). The way the image interacted with my vision struck me.

Maybe it was this experience with Black Panther or my general mood, but the Turner exhibition made an impression on me. In fact, it was the first time that I remember feeling as a result of seeing paintings. His work with light, the muted details, the contrasting colours, all seemed to me to be very emotive. The paintings allowed me to experience the emotions of the scene, rather than worry about the details.

Atmosphere is my style. Indistinctness is my forte.

From the text accompanying the exhibition, I gather that this is the kind of response that Turner was going for with his work. Indeed, it appeared to me that this was the approach Turner took when creating his paintings, that of emotion, energy, and attitude, over the detail. He wanted to create what was in his mind’s eye, not in the scene in clear view.

My business is to paint what I see, not what I know is there.

I remember really enjoying the work of the English Romantic writers and the Pre-Raphaelites. Whether Turner fits in with either of these groups, I’m not sure, but the timelines match up nicely. It’s the emotive intention that draws me to these groups. To use Turner’s own words, it is the indistinctness that allows the reader/viewer to place him- or herself nicely in the atmosphere of the scene. The experiences and imagination of the reader/viewer shouldn’t be understated in the conversation with the work.

His reputation for experimentation wasn’t immediately clear to me through the works presented. Of course, I don’t know enough about the arts. I did, however, enjoy seeing the sample studies that were included in the exhibition. Somehow, they justified the need for practice.

When leaving the exhibition, I left wanting more. I picked up the exhibition catalogue three times but put it back down each time. The reality is that I’m unlikely to make good use of the catalogue, even though I think it wouldn’t be a bad idea for me to study Turner further.

Now, I need to watch the movie, Mr. Turner.

With that, here are my favourites from the exhibition:

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