Tate Britain’s first major exhibition since the onset of our present crisis, Turner’s Modern World, is an Imax-sized naval blockbuster screened across a hundred canvases.
This collection of works from across the span of JMW Turner’s career is a wild, terrifying documentary about a world turned on its head by industrialisation and war.
Turner’s 19th century paintings capture the awesome and terrible power of the machines men built: vast warships that dwarf their charges; furnaces whose searing heat emulates from the canvas. They give you an inkling of the overwhelming scale of this new age.
He also grappled with the equally vast humanitarian issues of his time, from the atrocity of slavery to the futility of war. He imagined ferocious, fiery scenes in which the seas churn with the bodies of slaves, thrown casually overboard for the crime of being ill. He painted eerie hellscapes in which hillsides are strewn with the broken bodies of soldiers. These pieces are grand, orchestral laments, scored by a man who grasped the enormity of his situation and committed it to canvas with an intense visual poetry.
It seems almost absurd to imagine a contemporary artist detailing today’s seismic industrial shifts in such a way – Amazon workers toiling in monstrous factories, or endless rows of call centre workers. Perhaps the digital age lacks the visual clout.
Turner was also, unknowingly, among the first artists to capture the early stages of climate change. He painted the belching chimneys of steam boats as they first chugged down the Thames (even then the pollution they generated was controversial). He squinted through the smog of Victorian London and saw a hazy beauty.
From the vantage-point of 2020, a time when the world seems to be forever careering from one disaster to another, it’s fascinating to see the world from another pivotal moment, one that, despite its many horrors, seemed to at least offer the hope of something better.