Magazine article The Spectator

Visual Poetry

Magazine article The Spectator

Visual Poetry

Article excerpt


Visual poetry

Turner Whistler Monet

Tate Britain until 15 May

Sponsored by Ernst & Young

It could so easily not have worked, this bold (some might say foolhardy) juxtaposition of three such dissimilar artists. Particularly if one of them was felt to be somehow of inferior power - the sick man of the trio - a position which might have been reserved (by those who judge from ignorance) for James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903). What a mistake that would have been, and what a triumph this exhibition turns out to be. It has been superlatively hung and installed in the Tate's often unfriendly basement galleries, and is an absolute joy to look at. There are a hundred paintings, prints, pastels and watercolours on show, and they deserve the tribute of repeated visits, if you can stomach the crowds which will undoubtedly flock to any exhibition with the name Monet in it. Advance tickets are already selling well. Admission is a fairly hefty £10, so it's almost worth becoming a Tate Member (from £49). It's certainly an exhibition you want to linger in.

The show starts with Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), the most senior of the three, and in many ways the greatest. Whistler and Monet were friends and colleagues, but neither met Turner, and could only admire his work from afar. There were, however, displays of his paintings to be seen in London when the American-British Whistler and the Frenchman Monet visited, and, in Whistler's case, settled here, and the first room contains examples of this sort. The visitor is greeted appropriately enough by a small early Turner oil on mahogany panel entitled 'Moonlight, a Study at Millbank'. (How the locale has changed. Perhaps some YBA should recreate the view with the Tate boat zipping emptily across to Bankside.) Somewhat tentative, perhaps, but the handling is already assured, and the principal shared theme of the exhibition is clearly stated - the effects of light at the expense of form. In fact, despite the apparent 'realism' of Turner's approach at this period, as can be seen in the magnificent tree-lined 'Mortlake Terrace' on a summer evening, form is already being dissolved in light. (The river wall disappears in a glitter of gold and silver.) In the same room are daring watercolour studies of light, 'St Michael's Mount', 'Shields Lighthouse' and 'The Scarlet Sunset: A Town on a River'. The near-equivalent of the last in oil, 'Sun Setting over a Lake' (c. 1840-5), contrasts vividly in its vertiginous abstraction with the much earlier and more descriptive 'Chichester Canal; Sample Study' of c. 1828. The range of Turner is here economically suggested.

Turner is the acknowledged master of depicting nature's drama, and even in his lifetime Ruskin considered him unique in the truth to nature he was able to achieve. But his more extreme experiments were beyond Ruskin's comprehension, as indeed the later works of Whistler were to prove so famously to be. Room 2 introduces Whistler's early Thames-side pictures, when he skulked down in Wapping and Rotherhithe and painted the shipping and etched the foreshore. These essays in realism include paintings of Old Battersea Bridge and Reach, which now look remarkably old-fashioned, however boldly painted. We will have to wait for Room 3 for Whistler's apotheosis; in Room 2 Monet, with his Pool of London and Seine paintings, comes off best. 'Sunset on the Seine, Winter Effect' is a fine strong painting, but 'Floating Ice', all luscious pinks and blues, with its foretaste of the waterlily pictures, is beautifully evocative. …

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