Making Painting: Helen Frankenthaler and JMW Turner at Turner Contemporary

By Rhiannon Starr | 27 February 2014

Exhibition review: Making Painting: Helen Frankenthaler and JMW Turner, Turner Contemporary, Margate, until May 11 2014.

A photo of an art gallery with yellow walls and two landscape paintings framed in gold
Two artists, separated by a century, unite for Turner Contemporary's major Spring show© Stephen White
Turner and Frankenthaler are not an obvious pairing, but their paintings are currently on display side-by-side at Margate’s Turner Contemporary to startling effect.

Turner is so comfortably established as a national treasure that it is easy to forget what a controversial artist he was in the early 1800s. Helen Frankenthaler, on the other hand, was often overlooked during her life time.

Unfortunately, that was the fate of a woman in the macho arena of Abstract Expressionism. Turner’s landscapes are now ubiquitous in our national galleries, but, astonishingly, this is the first exhibition of Frankenthaler’s work in a public British gallery since 1969.
      
The usual suspects from Turner are on display: the glorious sunsets, the castles and cliff-top ruins, the stretches of turbulent sea and sky. It is Frankenthaler’s bold paintings which truly excite, however: her canvases are large and abstract, flooded with swathes of vibrant colour.

The delight of this exhibition is that it reveals unexpected common ground between the two artists. Frankenthaler, like Turner, often found inspiration in the natural landscape. Turner’s Evening Star (1830) is one of the most beautiful works on display: the pale light is barely discernible in the sky, but its reflection shines in the sea below.

Frankenthaler transformed the landscape around her into colourful, abstract vistas. Blue Fall (1966) is a striking cascade of ultramarine, crisply delineated against the white canvas, while the swirling grey and white impasto of Barometer (1992) looks like the pale, cold sea outside the gallery.

Making Painting also encourages visitors to compare the artists’ loose painting styles. Turner would apply washes of colour first, and then scrape, blot, or smear the paint until it took the form of squalling wind or scudding clouds.

Frankenthaler laid out unprimed canvas on the studio floor, and thinned her paint with turpentine. Then she poured the colours: they would pool on the surface first, before permeating the canvas and bleeding into one another.

Frankenthaler’s buoyant paintings invigorate Turner’s – they remind us that he was once experimental and audacious too. A single corridor is devoted to a side-by-side comparison of their smaller works, including Turner’s watercolours of the Kent coast.

It is a pleasure to see them here, where the young artist honed his skills, and first learnt “the physiognomy of the waves”.

Making Painting offers two fantastic opportunities: an overview of the glorious paintings of Helen Frankenthaler, and to see Turner’s landscapes on his home turf.

For those who visit Turner Contemporary on a bleak winter’s day, his watercolours might just make the turbulent sea and sky outside - framed by the gallery’s panoramic window - look rather beautiful.

  • Open 10am-6pm (closed Monday except Bank Holidays). Admission free. Follow  the gallery on Twitter @TCMargate.

Follow Rhiannon Starr on Twitter @RhiannonStarr_.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A photo of an art gallery with yellow walls and four landscape paintings framed in gold
© Stephen White
A photo of an art gallery with yellow walls and four landscape paintings framed in gold
© Stephen White
A photo of an art gallery with yellow walls and three landscape paintings framed in gold
© Stephen White
A photo of an art gallery with white walls and four abstract paintings framed in brown
© Stephen White
A photo of a dark red abstract painting framed on a white art gallery wall
© Stephen White
A photo of four dark red and green abstract paintings framed on a white art gallery wall
© Stephen White
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