News and Views

Turner's Faces

Last week, I went to an exhibition for the first time in 15 months. ‘Turner’s Modern World’ at Tate Britain.

It was the perfect post-lockdown excursion. Plenty of opportunities to observe people, while pretending to look at the art, with all the covert fascination of a Martian newly arrived on Earth. People, who don’t live together, in one room, talking and laughing – what brave new world is this!

Distracted as I was, it took me a little while to realise what was going on. Dramatic skies, tick. Cyclonic waves, good. Ships, plenty. But, that splodge – with three black dots – is that supposed to be a face?

No, it can’t be. This is J.M.W. Turner, an artist who trained at the Royal Academy and painted several self-portraits. There must be some mistake.

As we walked from one room to the next, the contrast between Turner’s lovingly delineated landscapes and crudely daubed faces become impossible to ignore. Imagine a cross between Munch’s ‘The Scream’, Voldemort, and a mole with a nasty case of conjunctivitis, and you won’t be far off. And there weren’t just a handful of these horrors – they were everywhere.

Of course, art is not photography. There’s no reason why Turner’s faces should resemble those we know and occasionally love. And to be fair, both Voldemort and ‘The Scream’ have done rather well. Perhaps Turner was on to something. But these faces make so much more sense in his scenes depicting the devastation of war than in the many bucolic scenes in which they also appear.

At first, it felt like a blow. Indiscernible at a distance, unavoidable up close – would it have been better if we’d never seen the faces at all?

But then, it became as though we were enjoying a private joke with Turner. “Another one!”, we’d cry delightedly as a mole loomed into view. We started smiling fondly at the bizarre juxtaposition of exquisite skyscapes and Beatrix Potter characters gone wrong.

By the end, Turner had ceased to be just another unreachable great – too perfect to fit easily into a world of cracked phone screens, split bags and cancelled trains. He was a friend – quirky, surprising, contradictory.

And I suppose that is what we have all been missing. The closeness that brings imperfections and idiosyncrasies into view. As we return to galleries, offices and bars, it’s reassuring to rediscover that everyone else is human too.

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Written By: Rosie Causer