Yesterday morning after visiting the peonies in full bloom, I headed to the National Art Museum on the edge of Wangfujing to see the new Turner exhibition that just started.
Joseph Mallord William Turner was a tour de force in his time.
He was born during the industrial revolution, a time when there was a huge gap between the rich and the poor. His father was a barber in Covent Garden and so the younger Turner was determined to get out of economic hardship through his talent in art.
At the age of 14 he managed to be enrolled in the Royal Academy of Art, then a new institution that encouraged full time artists. Turner had a background in architectural watercolour drawings and his talent was so good that one of his works was shown at the 1790 annual exhibition the year after he entered the academy.
When he was 26, he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy, meaning his work would definitely be shown at the annual exhibitions without having to go through a critique process.
But he soon grew out of watercolours and moved to oils. He exhibited his first oil painting, Fishermen at Sea in 1796 and it's in the exhibition. It's a dramatic piece, dark save for a bright white moon shining above while fishermen are struggling with the rough seas below. The triangular composition is very strong and compelling.
The conflict between man and nature was a constant theme for Turner, how man is completely dwarfed by the power of nature despite his attempts to modernize with technology.
He also began drifting away from the exactness of realism and moving towards impressionism. Another is that he was tired of the academy's mandate to constantly look towards classicism to justify art. While studying classical art was good for a foundation, Turner wanted to move forward to the present.
For example, when the Houses of Parliament were on fire in 1834, he rushed to the scene and made many sketches of the chaos. In his watercolours you can see the power of the fire engulfing the building with frantic strokes of colours swirling together evoking fear and uncertainty.
After the war with France was over, Britons were able to travel again and Turner took the opportunity to go to Italy, Germany and Switzerland among many other countries. He made hundreds of sketches that were later worked into paintings.
As Turner grew older, his works became even more abstract. In one piece called Sun Setting Over a Lake, it's reddish orange on one side, and white on the other with no clear definition of anything.
Critics complained his work could be upside down and it would look the same, but Turner ignored them. He had said his art was a result of hard work -- he never once took his talent for granted, constantly honing on his craft and forging new ground in art history.
When Turner died in 1851, he bequeathed his works to the British nation, over 100 paintings and over a thousand sketches. They are now shown at the Tate Gallery.
But until the end of June, many of them can be seen here in Beijing. What a treat.