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Turner: Sea and Alps a must-see at the Kunstmuseum, Lucern

Review by Neil Hennessy-Vass

JMW Turner, 'Fishermen at Sea', 1796
JMW Turner, 'Fishermen at Sea', 1796

The artist Joseph Mallord William Turner was a well-travelled man, and in 1802 he made his way across the continent (inaccessible until the Treaty of Amiens in March 1802 due to revolutionary France) to Switzerland. It was to be the beginning of a life long love affair with the country, with his last visit in 1844. Turner joined the throng of artists, adventurers and travellers who dared to go abroad. The Kunstmuseum in Lucerne has assembled through the tenacity of Director Fanni Fetzer, the help of Tate Britain and some private owners what has to be one of the most interesting exhibitions of Turner’s work in recent times. Entitled Turner: Sea and the Alps, the collection is celebrating 200 years of the museum and Turner’s visits. With 100 works of art including large-scale showstoppers like his first Royal Academy Oil Painting, Fisherman at Sea (1796) to the sublime and the truly exquisite Blue Rigi, Sunrise (1843), which sold for over £5m in 2007, making it the world’s most expensive watercolour at the time.

But in many ways this painting is overshadowed, in my view, by the scores of other works - mostly watercolours - that are rarely seen in public. They also include incomplete paintings (something Turner forbade the public from seeing during his lifetime), which give an insight into his working practices. He worked on some pieces for years only to abandon them unfinished, seemingly not good enough.

Turner's 'Blue Rigi, Sunrise' 1843 with curator Fanni Fetzer
Turner's 'Blue Rigi, Sunrise' 1843 with curator Fanni Fetzer

His trips to Switzerland became prospecting expeditions. Painting the same or similar views (as he did with The Rigi) in watercolour he would then take commissions to paint a larger version back in England. So intent was he to achieve original art, he painted the Mount Rigi from a boat (something he often did in the UK as well) to gain a unique perspective in conjunction with the interplay between light, lake, mountains and weather. These paintings usually started as sketches he made in a series of books, which were then augmented with paint in his hotel room. Then upon returning to London he would sell the samples for 80 Guineas each.

The ‘Sea’ element of the exhibition is included as Turner felt that the journey was as important as the destination, and crossing the channel on rigged ships was not a pursuit for everyone. Turner though seemed born to it, and was gifted with sea legs. He owned various boats during his life and went on many painting adventures. The seascape pictures are powerful and prove his ability to capture movement and jeopardy in a single scene. Pre-photography and cinema, this was imperative for a painter to be successful. Turner was one of the youngest entrants to the prestigious Royal Academy and spent a lifetime as part of the institution. With no formal schooling he was drawing at his father’s barbershop from a young age and selling these naïve efforts to the customers. Clearly driven in his pursuit of art he would stop at nothing to get the image he wanted, and seemingly went anywhere to get it too - he visited Switzerland six times.

Turner's 'Lake Lucerne at Dusk' (private collection)
Turner's 'Lake Lucerne at Dusk' (private collection)

This exhibition, on until 13 October 2019, is superb on every level. It is a journey through the eyes of Turner as his work matured and developed. His work was groundbreaking, and it must have seemed so strange to see for the first time compared to conventional contemporaries like Constable or Gainsborough. The Kunstmuseum is celebrating its 200th anniversary and this seems a fitting tribute. Even the wall paints used in the display rooms are chosen by Farrow and Ball the famous heritage paint company. It’s refreshing to see bright pops of ‘Charlotte’s Locks’ (a deep orange), Smoke Green (dark and moody) for the Fishermen at Sea and 'Stone Blue' (dark cornflower) providing the perfect foil to some pastoral scenes.

This is a well thought through exhibition brilliantly curated by Fanni Fetzer and her team that will put the Kunstmuseum firmly on the international arts map.


Showing until: 13 October 2019

Turner: Sea and the Alps

Kunstmuseum Lucerne


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