March 25, 2009 / 2:36 PM / 10 years ago

Turner's "evolution" at heart of Edinburgh show

EDINBURGH (Reuters Life!) - English romantic artist Joseph Turner set out on a life-changing visit to Italy with a sword concealed in the shaft of his umbrella to fight off brigands at the turbulent start of the 19th century.

Sotheby's employees hold Turner's "Pope's Villa at Twickenham" at Sotheby's auction house in central London April 24, 2008. REUTERS/Alessia Pierdomenico

The results of the artist’s visit in 1802 during a brief break in the Napoleonic wars and his love affair with Italy over six subsequent visits are charted in a stunning exhibition, “Turner and Italy,” opening on Thursday at Scotland’s national gallery in Edinburgh.

The gallery’s major spring exhibition runs to June 7, to be followed by another major show titled “The Discovery of Spain,” ranging through Goya to Picasso, from mid-July to October in parallel with Edinburgh’s International Festival of the arts.

Turner (1775-1851) became a “radical” in his artistic progress and use of color with a huge influence over the development of 19th century romantic art.

“Turner opened up the possibilities for 19th century artists in such a dramatic way, taking a classical tradition which was in danger of become almost constrained in a straitjacket, suddenly showing the liberating possibilities of an inherited classical tradition focusing on — in his mind — Italy and all things Italian,” national galleries Director-General John Leighton told Reuters at a preview.

The exhibition’s curator Christopher Baker said Turner had moved from a conventional “topographical tradition” as a young artist into what could be described as a “world of fantasy.”

“He is collating images of Rome and Venice, in particular Rome, which are fantastic and inventive, he’s compressing time and bringing together lots of different views in the picture,” Baker said.

Works include the extraordinary “”Rome from the Vatican” and the hazy depictions of Venice in which color is at the core of the paintings. Baker said that while “abstract” was a modern term, it was a fair way to described the artist’s use of color.

“He became fascinated by the pure quality of color, the associative qualities of color, and how color in particular can be used to convey emotions, and particularly how color combinations can be used to create great drama or peace, depending on what the subject is,” Baker said.

The exhibition displays more than 100 works, including oils, watercolors, sketches and books from Turner’s library illustrating his fascination with Italy. Items include loans from collections in the United States and from Melbourne, Paris, Belfast and London.

Baker said Turner’s sketch books also gave viewers an intimate insight into his method of work, rather like peeping over his shoulder, and “a real sense of how he’s hoovering up information there’s not a detail too small that is not worthy of his attention.”

The exhibition, put together by the Scottish gallery over a four-year period, was shown at Ferrara in Northern Italy last autumn, and goes to the Hungarian capital Budapest from Edinburgh.

Editing by Paul Casciato

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