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  1. Wealth
January 20, 2010

Trick of the light

By Spear's

The Turner show, for all its beauty, is ultimately lacking a centre, a climax, or rather, it has one but it is unexpressed.

A rather rapid rush of thoughts as I have to fly to Canary Wharf imminently, but I saw the Turner and the Masters show at Tate Britain last Saturday. It was sublime, and not in the feeling-threatened-by-the-grandeur-of-nature manner.

The thesis of the show was that Turner had achieved his grandeur by copying, rivalling and then surpassing the Old Masters, learning colour from Rembrandt or everything from Claude. This is both more and less important than it sounds.

Everyone learns from someone – autodidacts who have never studied the tradition they’re working in are rare. Even – especially – the greatest, most revolutionary artists are art historians: Picasso knew exactly what he was getting away from when he painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. This thesis would be remarkable if it weren’t a truism.

But the show, for all its beauty, is ultimately lacking a centre, a climax, or rather, it has one but it is unexpressed. What we see are all the ways in which Turner learned from others, but we are left to divine for ourselves quite what his unique genius is.

By this I mean that it is obvious that what he added to art, which no artist had done in quite the same way or with quite the same effect: light. He made skies and scenes glow and come close to emotional as well as physical reality. Yet ironically it is the one aspect the show does not cover.

Was he an ab origine genius, or did he improve by learning from others (most notably Rembrandt?). It is never wholly said, yet it is what elevates him to the status of a master.

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