This autumn, a landmark exhibition dedicated to British landscape painter JMW Turner will explore what it meant to be a modern artist during his lifetime.
Turner’s Modern World at Tate Britain will reveal how one of Britain’s greatest landscape painters found new ways to capture the momentous events of his day, from technology’s impact on the natural world to the dizzying effects of modernisation on society.
The exhibition will bring together 160 key works, including major loans as well as paintings and rarely seen drawings.
Turner lived through turbulent times. Britain was at war for much of his life, while revolutions and independence struggles took place around the world.
He witnessed the explosion of finance capitalism as well as the transition from sail to steam and from manpower to mechanisation, political reform as well as scientific and cultural advances transformed society and shaped the modern world.
Starting in the 1790s when Turner first observed contemporary life as a young painter, the exhibition will explore his fascination for industry and infrastructure as new elements of Britain’s landscape.
Two decades of conflict with France through the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars introduced another key dynamic to Turner’s work.
He directly engaged with war in paintings such as The Battle of Trafalgar 1806-8 and Field of Waterloo 1818, but also depicted aspects of life and work in Britain before, during and after conflict.
The exhibition will present his recollections of wartime at home and his reflections on the reputations of Nelson, Napoleon and Wellington as well as on ordinary soldiers and civilians.
The exhibition will also reflect on Turner’s interest in social reform, especially his changing attitudes towards politics, labour and slavery.
These include liberal and humanitarian causes such as Greek independence from Ottoman Turkey, the 1832 Reform Act and the abolition movement.
Key works such as The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons show his engagement with political events of the day, while A Disaster at Sea and Wreck of a Transport Ship are ambitious depictions of maritime catastrophes.
The final section of the exhibition will focus on Turner’s pioneering treatment of steam technology, presenting Turner’s late style as a means by which the artist sought to develop a visual language fit for the modern world.
Though alarming to his contemporaries, Turner’s late work is now appreciated as an eloquent response to the dizzying pace of change witnessed during his lifetime.
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