Joys of nature at Turner Contemporary in Turner and the Elements and Hamish Fulton's Walk

By Culture24 Reporter | 27 January 2012
An image of a painting of a ship on a high sea
JMW Turner, The Ports of England (1826-1828). Watercolours© Tate, London 2011
JMW Turner will forever hold a place in Margate, as the East Kent coast once held a home for him.

In the late 18th century, the precocious painter was sent to school in Love Lane, in the seaside town, and he returned there repeatedly in the 1820s and 1830s.

He stayed with Sophia Booth, whose bulldozed lodgings were ultimately replaced by the Turner Contemporary’s David Chipperfield-designed blocks in 2011, making his return almost poetic – on a bright day in the light-bathed space, visitors will be able to look out across the ocean from the windows, then look back at the same scenes committed to canvas in this exhibition.

"We know about his unconventional style and his unusual use of colour, but Turner was always known as a painter of elements, even in his time," says curator Inés Richter-Musso, reflecting on the central theme of the show.

"Critics in his time used this as a negative comment – they criticised the indiscipline of his paintings, where he didn't recognise matter any more. Our show wants to put it another way. There were scientific and natural elements.

"He knew many scientists personally, and the elements are just at the centre of this transitional moment, when the old philosophical way of explaining things through the four elements – earth, air, water and fire – was being newly defined by new discoveries, such as the first 30 elements of the periodic system being discovered in chemistry."

Of the 89 works, 12 are paintings and the rest are watercolours. "We wanted to show how the works Turner made in watercolours saw him experiment at different moments of his career, and how he developed certain characteristics and ways to paint through watercolour.

"His main interest was in the processes of transformation – he was interested in showing the effects of the elements and their causes, directly related to the scientific discussions going on."

Four of the upstairs spaces are devoted to these elements, with a fifth bringing together later works from the 1840s, a group Richter-Musso says is "like a culmination of all his lifelong interests and collaborations", expressing "the dynamic principles of nature he had seen in his lifetime".

They range from the Alps to Scandinavia and back to Kent, journeys which might be familiar to Hamish Fulton (read our Preview), the "walking artist" whose ode to journeys past takes over the neighbouring gallery and balcony.

The first public gallery display for this remarkable artist since he appeared at Tate Britain in 2002, it includes new works and pieces dating as far back as the 1960s, including three walks in England and France commissioned by the gallery, as well as one in Margate involving 198 people walking around a seabathing pool against the backdrop of a rising tide.

"What we've tried to do with both exhibitions is to get the natural light into the gallery spaces," says Gallery Director Victoria Pomery, heralding two shows with scant regard for artifice.

"I don't think our galleries have ever looked so good."

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