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A modern leviathan: Turner’s “Rain, Steam, and Speed—The Great Western Railway” (1844) may have been aimed at Isambard Kingdom Brunel (The National Gallery)

Of making exhibitions about J.M.W. Turner there is no end. The latest — and one of the more interesting — in an immemorial line is Late Turner: Painting Set Free at Tate Britain (September 10 - January 25, 2015). "Late", in this instance, means 1835 to 1851, that is from the age of 60 to his death at 76. The paintings of this period, with their freedom, their colour-infused atmospherics, their radically loose handling of paint, have long divided opinion. While they baffled his contemporaries they have been hailed by later generations as prototypes of modern art. Turner's peers couldn't decide whether many of the pictures were finished or simply works in progress. So aberrant could they seem that even the painter's greatest advocate, John Ruskin, turned on them: Turner's work of the mid-1840s, he said, showed "distinctive characters in the execution, indicative of mental disease".

Underlying the exhibition is the urge to show that Ruskin and others were wrong. In fact, as he aged, Turner did not slip into senescence, pessimism or even comfortable repetition and artistic stasis but, if anything, became a more radical artist than he had been when younger. Not only did his engagement with the modern world deepen but his technical experimentation picked up pace as time ran out. 

The paintings that best show his curiosity are the suite of nine square paintings he worked on between 1840 and 1846. Square canvases were a departure in his own work and a rare format in art in general. The themes revisit many of his regular topics, taking in the Classical (Glaucus and Scylla) and the nebulous (Light and Colour — Goethe's Theory),  the religious (The Angel Standing in the Sun — the picture that prompted Ruskin's outburst) and the modern historical (War: The Exile and the Rock Limpet — showing Napoleon). But what the paintings really examine is the vortex, a technique he had used before but which became characteristic in his later work. 

Each painting is essentially a swirl around a central vanishing point, a Vitruvian balance of square and circle. The effect is twofold: it gives even a contemplative subject a dynamic surge that does away with the rational certainties of traditional perspective, and it sucks the viewer into the painting like water disappearing down a plughole. While many of his topics may be familiar themes in the cultural tradition he dematerialises them. Because there is elegy or destruction inherent in each of his subjects these are doubly unsettling works, not least in that they also seem to question his own assertion that "the sun is God". Here the sun is in danger of being swallowed. "Alas for Turner!" wrote Ruskin at the end of Modern Painters. "He was without hope."

The exhibition shows that Ruskin's lament was misplaced. In the 150 works on show colour and light continue to dominate. In many ways his age and status allowed him to make formal experiments with paint that might otherwise have been impossible. In the late pictures he used the paint itself as a symbol of creativity, refusing to be trammelled by simple representation: "Indistinctness is my forte," was his response to one mystified patron. The gulf between his early works as a topographical watercolourist and the deliquescing canvases of his older age is unmatched by any of his contemporaries. 

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