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Aging artists find freedom of expression

By Kathy Yachus
People Photo
January 03, 2016 - 0 comments

It had nothing to do with being weak or frail, or not being able to move his paint brush as effortlessly; it had everything to do with his legacy. 

In the last 15 years of J.M.W. Turner’s life, when you’d think the brilliant English artist “would be ready to settle down, he goes completely in the opposite direction and he’s just full of beans,” said Lloyd DeWitt, curator of European Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario and coordinator of the current exhibit of Turner’s final and most important works on loan from Tait Britian.

“A radical and influential artist of the 19th century”, Turner was known as a romanticist landscape painter, but after the age of 60, he entered a heavily experimental phase, reflected in the name of the AGO’s show, Painting Set Free, featuring more than 60 works.

Having reached financial independence, the sense of pressure, the necessity to conform, and having to be consistent with his earlier self, drops away; Turner doesn’t feel that need to please, said DeWitt.

Instead, Turner hones in on the core of the story and how to tell the story in the most powerful way possible; but he’s also thinking about his legacy, added DeWitt. 

He used exploratory and unorthodox materials in his latter works, throwing everything onto the canvass to get the effects he wanted. He was very unorthodox but generally speaking he was well trained and knew what the rules were, said DeWitt.

This elimination of the irrelevant, reducing things to their core resulted from the insight of being blessed with so many years of success, exposure and the richness of his artistic life, which was considerable, he said. Turner’s later years were ones of “exceptional energy and vigour” as he continued to travel for his art.

“It took a lot to get to Switzerland, and for an older gentleman on foot and horseback, it was a slog but he had to travel; he was all about experience.”

Although many at the time thought Turner to have lost his mind, his later works eventually became very influential and more for what they were, not so much for changing the way other people painted,” said DeWitt.

In Turner’s case as in other legendary artists’ careers, financial freedom allowed them to pursue their goals unhindered because they were not concerned about sales, nor were they beholden to patrons anymore, he said.

Both Michelangelo and Rembrandt were revered into their late years while they worked to whittle away until the core of the story was exposed, said DeWitt. 

“You would not argue that Remembrandt had great financial independence later in his life. He was not destitute and he kept on working right till the end and developed more and more works with deeper insight and surface magic in those years.”

That’s what you have with artists who continue on their trajectory into their late career. You have this essence, this core; the values were always there, but a lot of encumbrances and formalities and existing practises and style and sensitivity to the market, tend to fall away.”

You don’t often see artists pursing a completely new direction that’s not recognizable from what they were doing before, although English critics certainly argued that Turner had lost his mind, said DeWitt.

The great French painter Henri Matisse called the last 14 years of his life “a second life.” According to his biography, Matisse found renewed energy after illness left him bedridden for a time.

“I have needed all that time to reach the stage where I can say what I want to say,” he said of his cut paper collages, which he called painting with scissors. “Only what I created after the illness constitutes my real self: free, liberated.”

His new art form not only provided him an invigorating new way of expressing himself, but the colourful cut outs offered him much comfort while he was confined to bed. 

J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free, runs at the AGO until January 31.


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