War And Slavery: Turner's Paintings Take Us Through A Dark History At Tate Britain

Turner's Modern World, Tate Britain ★★★★☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 14 months ago

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War And Slavery: Turner's Paintings Take Us Through A Dark History At Tate Britain Turner's Modern World, Tate Britain 4
Captures the intensity of the Battle of Trafalgar. Copyright Tate.

It's a dense, smoke-filled scene as the Battle of Trafalgar is about to draw to a close — the French lay down their flag in surrender, but it's not quite over. A French sniper has managed to hit Admiral Nelson, who lies wounded on the deck of the HMS Victory — a wound that would eventually lead to his death. This drama is all contained within a single painting by one of Britain's most recognised painters, JMW Turner, whose works are the focus of a sweeping exhibition at Tate Britain.

Turner lived in a time of great change and that's all present in his works — which might be steam trains whizzing through the landscape like a blur, or the horrors of war — one of his darkest works shows a field of dead at Waterloo, lit up by the two light sources of a torch at ground level and a flare in the air. It's a dramatic and terrifying vision — in contrast to his Battle of Trafalgar, there's no patriotism here, as Turner is showing the human cost of war.

The exhibition includes some of his best known paintings, including The Fighting Temeraire. Copyright Tate.

Continuing to focus on horrors of his time, Turner captures the transatlantic slave trade in one painting, showing horrific instance of enslaved people being thrown overboard into shark-infested waters — a common practice to avoid being prosecuted for slaving or to claim on insurance. The original painting is too fragile to travel but the curators have made the right call to include a reproduction of this sickening act.

Whether it's a ship full of women and children prisoners that's about to wreck — drowning all except a few of the crew — a burning Houses of Parliament or a black-sailed ship at sea marking the passing of a friend, this exhibition is filled with plenty of dark moments.

Venice and the bridge of sighs. Copyright Tate.

In contrast we also get to see a painting of a bustling Venice, mills within idyllic country landscapes and dozens of smaller sketches showing that he could operate on this scale as well as his big expansive paintings.

The exhibition's curation, making Turner's paintings and drawings our guide to his historical context, is a novel and effective approach, shining a light on Britain's — often deeply cruel and violent — history through spectacular artworks.

Turner's Modern World is on at Tate Britain from 28 October - 7 March. Tickets are £22.

Last Updated 27 October 2020