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June 29 2012

This week's new exhibitions in pictures

From Turner Monet Twombly in Liverpool to Edvard Munch in London, find out what's happening in art around the country

June 25 2012

Turner Monet Twombly: audio art tour

A new show at Tate Liverpool explores the similarities between the artists Turner, Monet and Twombly in the last years of their lives. Jonathan Jones gives an interactive audio tour

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June 19 2012

The great upstager: how Monet made Turner and Twombly look ordinary

Cy Twombly seems fake by comparison – and JMW Turner like a man who painted with custard. Jonathan Jones on Claude Monet's domination of an exhibition showcasing the three artists

The American painter Cy Twombly died last year at the height of his fame. He was 83, but recognition had come late; it was in his 60s and 70s that he reaped the rewards of a lifetime of making art, and, as the glory grew, created many of his most ambitious works. The comparisons grew more lavish until, by the end of his life, he was exhibiting alongside the classical master Nicolas Poussin. In Tate Liverpool's new exhibition, it is JMW Turner and Claude Monet who are lucky enough to share the honours.

Is it wise to short-circuit art history like this, blithely assuming that a famous name of our own time can hang alongside hallowed giants? It does not help that Tate Liverpool has made a slightly stale selection of Twombly's works. It seems like only yesterday that I was moved by one of his epic paintings about the lovers Hero and Leander, at Dulwich Picture Gallery in London. Now I'm having to weep for Leander by the Mersey, too. Twombly's paintings, inspired by the myth about a young man who drowns while swimming to his love across the Hellespont, are here juxtaposed with Turner's 1837 painting of the same story. In Turner's treatment, lofty temples and impassioned figures are eclipsed by a boiling, glistening sea. This has an honesty and rugged complexity that makes Twombly's misty colours seem sentimental.

Twombly's finest painting here is Orpheus, from 1979, which raises the troubling possibility that his famous late years were in fact a period of decline. On a white canvas, a huge handwritten O makes an eerily beautiful black drawing. Each letter of the name Orpheus shrinks in size: as you read the name, it is as if Orpheus fades away into his own song.

Twombly died with the reputation of a living Old Master. This exhibition releases him from that burden by revealing some massive flaws, especially when you set him beside Monet. The curator has hung some splashy, multicoloured splurges next to ravishing Monet garden scenes. Never work with children, animals, or Claude Monet. The quiet Frenchman is a great upstager. If he makes you worry about Twombly's sincerity, he can also make the marvellous Turner look like a man who painted with tobacco juice and custard. The two Ts are theatrical and self-consciously grand, painting for history. Then along comes Monet, with a painting of water lilies in a reflected glowing void – and his simple beauty seems more profound and suggestive than any amount of mythology.

Twombly remains a fascinating artist, but this show makes too many assumptions about his claim to greatness. (It also misses something about him – humour, perhaps, or sex.) Near Twombly's Four Seasons hangs an utterly scintillating flower painting by Monet. It seems to have more colours in one spot of its surface than Twombly can muster across an entire epic. You do not need the Hellespont to drown in: Monet's pond is deep enough. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 15 2012

Cy Twombly's late works alongside Turner and Monet

A threefold show of sensuality and symphonic emotion at Tate Liverpool, plus openings of work by Yoko Ono, Bruce Nauman and Andy Warhol – all in your quality weekly art dispatch

Exhibition of the Week: Turner, Monet, Twombly

The death of Cy Twombly in 2011 deprived the world of a mighty painter. Colour in art is the language of feeling. Twombly spoke that language with a langorous drawl.

Born in Lexington, Virginia, his sensibility seems steeped in the melancholy of the American south. That poetic quality was sharpened in New York and matured in Italy. As a young man, together with his close friend Robert Rauschenberg, he confronted the Abstract Expressionist style that flourished in 1950s New York with intimate, earthy references to real life. The result was a richly allusive way of painting which flourished after he settled in Rome and immersed himself in the history of the Eternal City.

This exhibition takes very late works by Twombly and compares them with the late paintings of JMW Turner and Claude Monet. This is a tough test for Twombly's reputation. Will his art truly stand up to these masters?

Monet's late works are overwhelming. His waterlilies hang suspended in time and space, in paintings that melt into abstraction. Turner too became precociously abstract with age. So this is an exhibition about the nature of abstraction – about where it meets the stuff of life.

I expect Twombly to be right at home in this company. The exhibition anyway ought to be an incendiary nocturne of sensuality and symphonic emotion.
· Tate Liverpool, from 22 June

Also opening

Yoko Ono
One of the most original and daring artists of the 1960s, whose performances break barriers between artist and onlooker.
• Serpentine Gallery, London, from 19 June

Bruce Nauman
A founder of the postmodern in art. Nauman is represented here by his work Days, a meditation on time, comparable with the works of composer Steve Reich.
• ICA, London, from 19 June

Andy Warhol
Is there really more that is new and exciting to reclaim in the art of Andy Warhol, or is he perhaps due some dead time?
• Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, from 20 June

Dead Standing Things
Still life under Dutch influence makes for a fresh glimpse of British art in this special display.
• Tate Britain

Masterpiece of the Week

Charles Collins, Lobster on a Delft Dish, 1738

This gorgeous still life with its shiny red lobster takes us to the precise, keen-eyed, and passionately materialistic world of the 18th century Enlightenment and is a gem of the Tate collection.

Image of the week

Five things we learned this week

Art doesn't have to be visible to be wonderful

There's a greyhound with a painted pink leg on the loose in Kassel, Germany

Renzo Piano's Shard is "not about priapismo"

Tracey Emin would have liked to be taught by Louise Bourgeois

How Rachel Whiteread battled with the elements while making her Whitechapel frieze

And finally

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June 08 2012

Turner, Monet, Twombly – a trio of sublime painters

Tate Liverpool's forthcoming show, at first sight an unlikely grouping, reveals a web of affinities that gives a new aspect to each

JMW Turner may be the most familiar of all British artists, but his allure remains so great that curators are on a permanent mission to find new angles from which to view him. The current trend is compare and contrast. In 2009 Tate Britain staged Turner and the Masters which looked at the way Turner measured himself against earlier painters. Turner in the Light of Claude, which has just closed at the National Gallery examined his engagement with the great 17th-century landscapist Claude Lorrain. The latest manifestation of our obsession with the man is Turner, Monet, Twombly: Later Paintings which opens at Tate Liverpool this month. This exhibition, however, scrolls forward and looks at the artist in company with his successors rather than predecessors.

It is at first sight an unlikely grouping: while the links between the romantic Turner and the impressionist Monet are well documented, Cy Twombly, the 20th/21st-century American painter of pale, abstract calligraphic canvases, seems to have little affinity with either of them. The exhibition though reveals a web of affinities that gives a new aspect to each. This is not a study of master and pupils or indeed of direct painterly influences but of shared themes and sensibilities. It is also about a long and unbroken painterly tradition: between them, Turner (1775-1851), Monet (1840-1926) and Twombly (1928-2011) form a three-generational strand that runs through nearly 250 years of western art.

At one point the third painter of the trio was going to be Mark Rothko, until the full extent of Twombly's links with the older artists became clear. Before Twombly died last year, the exhibition's curator, Jeremy Lewison, had time to meet him just once in the planning stages of the show. Despite neither Turner or Monet featuring in the artist's previous interviews or writings it transpired that he owned an autographed letter from each of them as part of his collection of artefacts from artists he particularly admired. Twombly had already long identified himself with them.

The similarities Twombly saw and that this exhibition makes explicit include what Lewison lists as: "An interest in allusion and metaphor, a preoccupation with mortality, a liking for atmospheric effects and an engagement with the tradition of the sublime." On a less elevated note, all three painters were also the victims of vituperative reviews and critical miscomprehension during their careers.

If these correspondences suggest that the resulting pictures are gloomy the opposite is true. In later life all three painters had the self-confidence of old age and were not only still experimenting but producing some of the most radical work of their careers. They may have revisited the subjects of their earlier paintings – landscape, fire, water, the seasons – but they did so with urgent vigour. As Twombly put it: "I've found when you get old you must return to certain things in the beginning, or things you have a sentiment for or something. Because your life closes up in so many ways or doesn't become as flexible or exciting or whatever you want to call it." As age took its toll on their physical power all three men found their flexibility and excitement in paint instead.

Indeed the proddings of mortality, of time and loss, memory and desire, spurred each of them on: between 1829 and his death in 1851 Turner produced 240 paintings; from 1897 to 1926 Monet made 482; and in the last 12 years of his life Twombly painted more than 70 (compared with 58 in the previous 18 years). The length of the past and the shortness of the future hit all of them in a rush. It was not enough though: Monet wrote at 78 that "I think I shall die without ever having arrived at something to my liking."

For all the airiness of their themes, however, the three men were never painters of nothingness. They each remained faithful to their chosen motifs. Turner may have complained that "Atmosphere is my style, indistinctness my fault" but, for example, the nebulous late canvases that so mystified and sometimes outraged his contemporaries, were not just experimental washes of sky, water and land but paintings that were not yet paintings and which often became the basis for fully formed works.

Because there was a large dose of the showman in his nature, he would arrive at the Varnishing Days before the annual Royal Academy Summer Exhibition with one of these rudimentary pictures and totally transform it. The days had been instituted so that exhibiting artists could make minor tweaks to their pictures to take into account the rooms, light and paintings surrounding them. Turner called them "painting days", however, and used them not to adjust but to transform his pictures and also to prove to himself and younger artists that he could still do it. It was, said one contemporary, like watching "a magician, performing his incantations in public". The results would be recognisably Turnerean, although arrived at in a new way.

Because he was incapable of working from imagination, the huge scale and near-abstract qualities of Monet's waterlilies were a case of the painter settling on a motif through which to work out feelings of grief. He had first painted waterlilies in 1899 after the death of his friend Alfred Sisley and his own step-daughter Suzanne, and he returned to them later in response to emotional hardship. The death of his son Jean; the growth of cataracts in his eyes; the death of his second wife, Alice; the outbreak of the first world war, all were dealt with by painting these watery scenes traditionally associated with mourning and calm. So fixated had he become that when he left for a painting trip to Venice Alice wrote "What a miracle that he has left his garden! How happy I am!"

Twombly too turned to arcadia with a series of huge paintings of peonies sharing the title Blooming. These rich, blowsy flowers from which paint dribbles in rivulets are a metaphor not just for transience but embody too the sensuality of life. In his last decade Twombly said he worked "in waves because I am impatient … I take liberties I wouldn't have taken before" and the paintings are the proof. Exemplified by his extraordinary Camino Real (2010), they show a new interest in colour. They are pictures of supersaturated shades – inky reds, livid oranges, fizzing greens – so unlike the tonal politeness of his earlier pale work.

Elsewhere the links between the three are more exact. Monet first encountered Turner's work when he came to London with Camille Pissarro in 1871 to escape the Paris Commune. The pictures he saw in the South Kensington Museum – now the V&A – made a deep impact and engendered a sense of emulation. Some historians have suggested that the founding work of impressionism, Impression, Sunrise (1872-3), was painted as a direct result. Turner was not an impressionist avant la lettre but Monet's Thames paintings and especially the series depicting the Houses of Parliament, painted between 1900 and 1905, were undoubtedly a response to the Englishman's own love of the river and his experiments with atmospheric effects and shifting light. Paintings of Waterloo Bridge by both artists hang side by side in the exhibition. The idea of studying one motif under changing conditions was something Monet used again in his other series showing Rouen Cathedral and haystacks.

Turner and Monet also shared an immunity to physical danger while painting. Turner claimed to have been lashed to the mast of a ship called the Ariel in order to witness the inside of a storm for a picture. Monet meanwhile nearly lost his life painting the cliffs near Etretat on the Normandy coast. He had climbed down to be able to paint the Manneporte rock arch when he was taken unawares by a wave: "It threw me against the cliff and I was tossed about in its wake along with my materials! My immediate thought was I was done for, as the water dragged me down."

Twombly was less daring: "Mainly I sit and look", he said, "I can't get on a ladder all the time, it hurts." Where he most resembled Turner was in the frequency with which he dealt with myth and history. Turner's art is full of references to antiquity – from Dido to Ulysses – and also to contemporary events, whether it was the burning of the Houses of Parliament or the scandal of a slave ship captain throwing his dying cargo overboard.

Twombly used myth not as illustrative but allusive. By naming a canvas "Bacchus" or "Orpheus" he didn't so much imply a narrative but use the resonance of the name and its residual impact in the viewer's mind to give an extra depth. He invoked a sense of nostalgia for a played-out civilisation. He too could nod to contemporary events though: his sculpture Thermopylae, referring to the battle between the Greeks and the invading Persians in 480BC, was made in 1991, the time of the first gulf war. He gave the title Lepanto, the name of the last great sea battle in 1571 between Christians and Ottomans, to a series of pictures in 2001, the year of 9/11.

Twombly described himself as a "Romantic symbolist" and that could, at a stretch, be applied to Turner and Monet too. All of them used boats, for example, to express man's passage through life, whether it be Turner's wave-tossed sailing ships, Monet's rowing boat at rest on a still lily pond, or the one-way journey of Twombly's Egyptian funerary barques.

"Meaning", however, in all three artists is always elusive and mutable and this exhibition does not focus on what the symbols represent but rather on their painterly affiliation – the shared poetry, the raging against the dying of the light, and the fact that the pictures invite a psychological reading. All three were painters of immersive canvases, works without borders that draw the viewer in to a rich and often melancholic world. Above all perhaps their pictures give the tangible sense that Turner and Monet would have agreed with Twombly's definition of the painter's motivation being all about "the forming of the image; the compulsive action of becoming". These were artists determined to the very end to discover just what painting could do and who went about it, across the centuries, in remarkably similar ways. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 09 2012

The top visual arts picks for spring

The Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, Yoko Ono and a welcome re-evaluation of Edvard Munch

Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art

Interactive art by Jeremy Deller, Wolfgang Tillmans photographs, Richard Wright drawings, LA-based installationist Kelly Nipper at Tramway, a new film co-commissioned with Scottish Ballet by Rosalind Nashashibi and much more in Scotland's funkiest city. What's not to like? Various venues, 20 April to 7 May.

Bauhaus: Art as Life

The Bauhaus was key to architecture, design, furniture, textiles, painting, sculpture, photography and so on – not just what art you hung on your walls, but the walls themselves, and a whole sense of what it is to be modern. A huge number of artworks and artefacts by its international roster of participants will inhabit a specially designed series of dramatic and intimate spaces. Barbican, London EC2, 3 May to 12 August.

Documenta 13

Documenta is the five-yearly keynote show of contemporary art worldwide, held in the German town of Kassel. Polemical, always controversial and frequently baffling, "this exhibition speaks about the uniqueness of our relationship with objects and our fascination with them," says its website – which could mean anything. Documenta depends on its invited curators, led this time by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. Kassel, Germany, 9 June to 16 September.

Yoko Ono

How substantial an artist Yoko Ono is remains a question, though her impact on contemporary art has been described as enormous. She remains an enigmatic, annoying, captivating and charismatic figure, as this exhibition will doubtless confirm. Serpentine Gallery, London W2, 020-7402 6075, 19 June to 9 September.

Turner Monet Twombly

JMW Turner and American abstractionist Cy Twombly seem to be shoehorned into all sorts of iffy confrontations these days. Here their late work appears with Monet's. Late Twombly still seems over-rated to me, but the showing of late Monet water lily paintings will be worth the visit alone. Tate Liverpool, 22 June to 28 October.

Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye (Critic's choice)

Sixty paintings, many from the Munch Museum in Oslo, and a rare showing of the artist's photography and film works, in a welcome exhibition intended to recast Munch not as symbolist depressive or Norway's Mr Scream, but as a quintessentially 20th-century artist attuned to his times. We are apt to forget that Munch lived until 1944. Tate Modern, London SE1, 28 June to 14 October. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 27 2012

Brighton to display Turner painting that captures resort's transformation

Watercolour to go on show in Brighton Museum after council bought it for £225,000 with grants and local donations

A painting of Brighton by JMW Turner will go on public display for the first time in more than a century this week – only a few hundred yards from where it was painted, in the proud city which now owns it.

The 1825 watercolour in which Turner showed small fishing boats almost swamped by choppy seas by the newly built Chain Pier is also his only work to show the Brighton Pavilion.

He captured the town at the point when royal patronage was transforming it from a small fishing village to one of the smartest seaside resorts in the country. The painting shows the new houses creeping up the windmill-capped hill, the rising cliffs of hotels, and the new seawater baths opened by a Mr Lamprell in a circular domed building nicknamed "the bunion".

Although Brighton owned several 19th century prints of the view, the original had vanished into a private collection. The council managed to buy it for £225,000 when it resurfaced at a Christie's auction in New York earlier this year, with grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Art Fund charity, and local donations.

It will be on display at Brighton Museum, which has free admission, from Saturday. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 18 2012

Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude

National Gallery, London WC2

That JMW Turner was profoundly indebted to the French landscape painter Claude Lorrain has never been in doubt. The influence was obvious from the start. Of the many surprising facts about him – that he owned a pub in Wapping, that he had a secret life with an illiterate woman in Chelsea, where his nickname on the streets was Admiral Puggy Booth – the least shocking was this strong French connection. In his day, Turner was even known as the "British Claude".

Nor has this been news since his death in 1851. In his immense and complex bequest, Turner left two landscapes to the nation to be hung next to a pair by Claude so that the affinities would be fully apparent to succeeding generations. You can see them in room 15 of the National Gallery to this day.

What Turner took from Claude is all there at a glance: the aerial view, the graceful staging with great trees on either side and the landscape dissolving into the distance in untraceable gradations, the mastery of hazy golden sunrise and the luminous glow of dusk; Claude's magical light. There is more, of course, but the formula for the ideal poetical landscape Claude more or less invented is clearly established.

Anyone who has already seen this, for free, might well ask what an entire show on the subject is likely to give them for the price of entry. One answer might be a greater familiarity with Claude for those who haven't had much opportunity, in particular with his wonderfully subtle ink-wash views made on the spot (and, not incidentally, beautiful as any late Turner).

Another answer, alas, might be some glum misgivings about the ultimate value of such shows.

Claude Gellée (1600-82) was born in Lorraine, hence the nickname, but known for short as Claude. That he worked his way up from pastry cook in Rome to supreme European landscape painter is glibly cited here as some sort of parallel to Turner's rise from barber's shop to Royal Academy. What they actually share is not humble origins so much as a transcendent vision for the art of landscape.

When Turner saw Claude's Seaport With the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba with its dominating sun – so remote, its rays truly seeming to travel through time to reach these classical ruins by the shore –, he was, according to a witness, "awkward, agitated and burst into tears". The shock of recognition presumably overwhelmed him. But indeed anyone might be moved by this vision of scattered figures watching the slow departure into the faraway light of that world, the sense of an ending is so profound.

And so is the sense of time – or timelessness. Claude paints the Italian countryside as an ancient land of towering trees and toppled monuments in which you might as easily chance upon Narcissus and Echo as encounter a jig of 17th-century peasants. The pale mountains are as ageless as the dark grottoes, the silver tide could be bearing a boat to Naples or Byzantium.

When Turner sees these works – he didn't have to travel for there were hundreds of Claudes in British collections by 1800 – his reaction is immediate. It is not just that he produces his own version of Narcissus, nor that he paints Tivoli on Thames, but that he, too, begins to fuse the past with the present. Linlithgow Palace, for instance, rises like the proverbial fairy castle out of gold-tinged mist. It is a scene both romantic and to a large extent factual. But in the foreground below, a group of male nudes – shirts discarded like togas – bathe in the warm river as if this was ancient Greece and not 19th-century West Lothian.

It is striking to witness this response in the gallery and certain moods common to both artists emerge more distinctly through the alternating display. But the revelations are swiftly over. Infelicities in Turner – his hopelessly static dancers, say – send you to Claude for comparison (as the show urges) and this feels unfair on both painters.

Nor, by the way, does the exhibition have anything to say about the relationship of figures to landscape, which is surely more interesting than the old lecture about suns and stage-sets. Spectators, mythical heroes, workers, passing angels: none appears rooted in the landscape; at their best, these figures have a curious power of suggestion, inspiring a vision of the landscape when there is nobody there.

Turner's obsession with Claude was lifelong and blatant. The curators stick with it from first to last, which is admirable in terms of scholarship but restricts the show to the kind of Turners one might not always seek out: glaucous sunsets, weak allegories, soaring black trees where the paint glistens like tar, scenes where he has put everything into appearing lusciously foreign and ended up entirely unpersuasive.

And although there are magnificent Claudes, including some from private collections, his radicalism barely comes over. In this context, Claude looks like a painter with a special interest in ruins and skies who will soon to be eclipsed by the sun-worshipping Turner.

Nothing comes of nothing in art; every painter has his or her influences. To take this truth to exhibition length – no matter how riveting the technicalities may be to some – is to risk both simplification and overstatement. Turner and Picasso have lately been the subject of four such exhibitions, each a more reductive compare-and-contrast exercise than the last; this one is the narrowest.

Even for those determined to keep the two properly separate in mind – the limpid philosophy of Claude; the extraordinary dematerialisations of Turner – the eye is inevitably directed against it. Here, Claude looks more serene; there, Turner looks more visionary; comparisons are invited on principle. This vice is most exposed in a room full of sunsets in fortuitous sequence – going, going, gone – where the emphasis can hardly help being the group phenomenon, rather than individual painting or painter. This is not the best way to present art. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 29 2012

Hamish Fulton - review

Turner Contemporary, Margate

An artist among walkers, a walker among artists: Hamish Fulton is a strange and inspiring figure. For almost four decades he has covered between 30 and 50 miles a day, depending on the terrain, in all weathers. From Soho to Saskatchewan, from his home in Kent to the peaks of Nepal, he has trekked, hiked and trudged the world in solitude. His object is to unite two apparently incongruous activities: walking and art.

There are other British art-walkers, of course. But unlike Andy Goldsworthy, with his picturesque arrangements of pebbles and leaves, Fulton leaves nothing behind him in the landscape. And unlike Richard Long, with his exhibitions of stone circles and his celebrated mudworks, Fulton brings nothing back to the gallery.

Or at least he does occasionally return with a souvenir photograph. It might be an Alaskan lake dwindling into cubes of blue ice, or an English path vanishing beneath the roots of old hornbeams. But although these images appear definitive – and beautiful as the art of Ansel Adams – they are only testaments to a passing moment, a brief pause on the whole long journey. There is a chasmic gap between those days and sometimes weeks of walking and what Fulton can ever really say about them, and it is this distance that is both the subject and the principle of his work.

Sometimes a photograph will have words written across or below it: "Mount Everest Summit Buddha Wrapped in Khata Scarves and Prayer Flags". You know where you are, you know what you're looking at. But just imagine the feat of getting up there with that statue!

Sometimes the work consists only of words: Brain Heart Lungs, for instance, Fulton's laconic summary of scaling Cho Oyu (the world's sixth highest mountain, which he doesn't mention) without oxygen. The nouns are aptly large on the wall; but still the work is barely a haiku.

Least said, most imagined: that might be one way of describing Fulton's art and the way it stimulates the mind. Or to quote his own account of what he makes: "Facts for the walker, fictions for the viewer." One word-work reports "Seven One Day Walks on Country Roads and Paths Out and Back 44 Miles Each Day", but consider the black and grey presentation and all sorts of visions come to mind: drizzle, self-discipline, precision, the fatigue at the end of each slog.

Over the years, Fulton has found a number of ways of condensing his experience. Sometimes it is achieved through typography: a bright and fluid sans serif typeface for the word WATER; an italic for PATHS, so that the word itself is leading forwards. Lately there has been rather more figuration, as in a brilliant disc on a vast dark square evoking the solstice, or the little wooden sticks nailed together in a skyline of peaks. The eye goes up and down this switchback, arriving at the end with a sudden revelation: that this little structure, so sharp, so graphic, describes the memory of crossing the Alps.

Fulton can be opaque: what does it mean to him (or us) that this set of distances appears on graph paper, or that journey is mapped in blue? And sometimes, when the work is especially terse, you find yourself registering little more than his stamina (1,022 miles in 47 days).

But the Turner Contemporary has some of Fulton's strongest works. A trip up Everest produces a mountain of a piece: Chinese Economy Tibetan Justice, in which seven-letter words in black and red rise to five metres, the protest banner as art. And at the other end of the scale, a photograph of a local milestone summons Kentish feet, walking to weddings, to market, to work, when the only way for most was shanks's pony.

As far as I know, Fulton has never made a film before (too full, too revealing). But now he is showing the people of Margate walking round one of the famous boating pools on the beach. Slow, silent and equidistant, each figure files round the edge: a line, a stitch, a tooth in a comb. The effect is extraordinarily potent.

Close up (the screen is split) they appear in even motion, like marching soldiers. At a distance, however, nobody seems to move at all and it is as if the pool is edged with dark blanket-stitch. Hundreds of individuals, and at the same time one line, a single body: it's a walking definition of humanity.

The Turner Contemporary is working in tandem with Birmingham's Ikon Gallery, where more of Fulton's works can be seen from next month. It is a terrific collaboration, this sharing of contemporary art around the country, and once again our coastal galleries lead the way. And in an inspired pairing of old and new, you can also see Turner and his Elements alongside Fulton in Margate.

This is the Turner of mist, haar and spume, of hazy summer and autumn fog, of watercolours that catch the ever-changing rhetoric of weather and light, particularly along the English coast. It is Turner at his most brilliant: rapid scumblings and washes, deft sketches of grey afternoon shadows and wintry whiteouts, captured on small sketchbook pages.

Every image makes you wonder at the mysteries of nature: how rain hangs in the air, how the sun burns away darkness and moisture at dawn, how sea and sky mirror each other's tones. From the moon, constant behind veils of fluctuating rack, to the beach below the gallery where you stand, a golden stretch dotted with discs of pale water, these informal images remain alive and new even after almost two centuries. Of the several Turner shows opening in 2012, this may be the most exhilarating. Start here. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 27 2012

Turner exhibition opens in Margate

Works by JMW Turner, including 12 oil paintings and 72 watercolours, go on show at Turner Contemporary gallery

After 161 years, JMW Turner is back in town for the first major exhibition of his work in Margate, the seaside retreat he repeatedly visited for what he claimed were "the loveliest skies in all Europe".

The exhibition, which includes 12 oil paintings and 72 dazzling watercolours, is free. The Turner Contemporary gallery has at times been overwhelmed by its own success, attracting more than 350,000 visitors before it reaches its first birthday. There are emergency plans to introduce timed tickets if the crowds become unmanageable. "It's fair to say there has been a lot of excitement in the town about this show," said director Victoria Pomery.

Quite right too, according to Turner's biographer James Hamilton. "This is just wonderful, at last to show these works on the site where so many of them were made or inspired by. When I arrived last night there was a shining sea, the last streaks of colour of sunset, a few little boats, and a bright sliver of moon - it absolutely was his painting which we have on that wall, The New Moon."

The fact that not a single work by Turner remained in the town, and that Sophia Booth's seaside boarding house, where he lodged and bedded the landlady, was bulldozed in road building half a century ago, were dismissed as minor hiccups when the ambitious scheme was launched to boost the fortunes of a tattered resort full of empty shops and hotels by building a gallery celebrating the links with one of the most famous artists of the 19th century.

Hamilton does not think there ever were any Turner collectors in Margate, or that the town was remotely aware of the growing fame of the stocky, eccentric little man who first came as a teenager, and made many visits in the 1820s and 30s.

A panoramic view of the seafront painted 20 years after his death in 1851 does not even show Booth's double fronted cottage, much less single it out as a place of artistic pilgrimage.

Both Hamilton and Pomery think there must at least have been some Turner drawings in the town, but if so they have vanished. Pomery still half expects that one day somebody will walk in with a piece of paper from a trunk in the attic, with a stormy sky and sea sketched in one swirl of grey watercolour.

The exhibition concentrates on Turner's lifelong fascination with the elements, from a drawing he made aged 15 of Neptune shaking his fist at Aeolus the god of the winds, to crimson volcanic ash streaked Italian skies, and his close interest in scientific advances in his lifetime.

It includes many of his late watercolours and paintings when objects dissolve completely into a dazzle of light and colour, which curator Ines Richter-Musso said completely bewildered his contemporaries.

He was well aware of their impact. The exhibition tells the story of the scientist Richard Owen coming at Turner's invitation to his private gallery in 1845, stunned at being shut by the housekeeper into a pitch dark room. Turner ordered him to wait in the darkness until his eyes adjusted from the bright August daylight, before being permitted to come upstairs to the gallery.

What modern viewers love, she said, is their immediacy, the vivid impression that like the artist they are in the scenes, battered by the waves and wind, blinded by the light – but by carefully comparing his notebooks, colour sketches and finished works, she has concluded that hardly any were made on the spot.

One spectacular painting in the show of a storm at sea off Harwich was captioned by Turner "The author was in this storm on the Night the Ariel left Harwich" and no viewer could doubt that he was there in the thick of it. Not so, Richter-Musso said. "He was not in that boat. You see he says the author, not the artist. He has left some ambiguity."

The gallery's next major show, opening in May, is of that other Margate superstar, Tracey Emin. The timed tickets could be needed again.

• Turner and the Elements is at the Turner Contemporary Margate, free, until 13 May 2012 © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 25 2012

Artoon of the week – Constable and Turner

The great painter of serene country scenes finds his tranquility tested by a Turnerian tumult, in Peter Duggan's latest cartoon take on art history

January 15 2012

Hockney, Freud, Turner and Hirst: art blockbusters of 2012

As the works go up and the buzz begins, we speak to the movers and shakers about how they got here …

David Hockney: Royal Academy

It's an Olympic year for artists too, and first out of the blocks is David Hockney: A Bigger Picture at the Royal Academy. Like the athletes competing in London this summer, Hockney – now a veteran at 74 – has spent the past four years pushing himself beyond his limits in preparation for what could be the defining test of his career. The result is one of the most ambitious shows in the Academy's 244-year history: more than 150 works, some of them gargantuan, more than 80% of which have been made specially for this exhibition and the particular spaces of this light-filled gallery.

For Edith Devaney, co-curator of the exhibition, the most invigorating part of the process has been watching the new paintings emerge first-hand. "Like David, we didn't know what to expect, but we knew it would be exciting," she says. "I remember him saying to me when we started off this process, 'We won't get this wrong.' And I thought, 'No, we won't.'"

Hockney has always dabbled in landscapes – notably his photo collages of the Grand Canyon and Pearblossom Highway in the 1980s and 90s when he was still in the States – but they have been a sustained focus of his work since he returned to live in Bridlington, East Yorkshire a decade ago. In recent years he has produced paintings at a complusive rate, first with watercolours then oils, and most recently on his iPhone and iPad. "David's not actually that interested in technology, he's just interested in other methods you can use to make art," she explains. "The work he did on his iPhone is charming, but the work he does on his iPad has the painterly quality of his oils – it's astonishing."

Another new direction for Hockney is his use of film. Showing as a world exclusive at the Royal Academy his films are created by nine high-definition cameras pointing in fractionally different directions – the result has been described as a "moving cubist collage".

"It has the same multiplicity of perspectives," says Devaney. "When you look at this film you feel as though you are seeing the world through David Hockney's eyes."

With Hockney's canny knack for self-promotion – he recently declined to paint the Queen because he was "very busy painting England actually, her country" – marketing expectations for the show are off the scale. As a private and independent institution, the Royal Academy is not obliged to supply a projected attendance, but there are whispers that A Bigger Picture could challenge the 1999 Monet exhibition, which hosted 813,000 visitors. Demand was so relentless back then that the Academy opened its doors 24 hours a day, a UK first. "In principle we'd do that again," says Jennifer Francis, head of press and marketing. "Certainly in the final few weeks, if we think people will be there at three in the morning."

Advertising for the show will have local, national and international targets – from buses in Bradford to the LA tourist board. "It's the first time I've bought space on buses up and down the country," says Francis. "There is a massive buzz about this exhibition."

"I really sense the position of this exhibition in history," interjects Devaney. "It's a slight change of direction for us: we are picking someone like David, who is at the height of his powers, and giving him freedom. Working very closely with him, but allowing him to take off. In 100 years' time people at the Academy will look back and think, 'Oh my God, this was a really important thing for the Academy to have done.'"

David Hockney: A Bigger Picture is at the Royal Academy, London W1, 21 January-9 April

Lucian Freud: Portraits

The cynical among us might wonder if the National Portrait Gallery's auspicious Lucian Freud: Portraits exhibition was hastily conceived in the aftermath of the artist's death last July. We would, however, be missing the mark by, ooh, about five years. "The idea came to me in 2007, just after we won the Olympic bid," says the National Portrait Gallery's contemporary curator Sarah Howgate. "Everybody felt it would be a fantastic exhibition to do in 2012, when Lucian was going to turn 90. Our director, Sandy Nairne, told him, 'You are going to be our Olympian,' which Lucian found quite amusing."

Howgate can also measure the complicated gestation of the show in another way. "I started writing to lenders in 2008 to request his work and then I went off on maternity leave," she recalls. "Now my little boy is three and the exhibition is just about to start!"

There are 132 works in Lucian Freud: Portraits, the largest exhibition of his portraiture that has ever been assembled. Howgate secured almost all of the key paintings that she requested from museums and private collections, including Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, bought in 2008 by Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich for £17m, a world record auction price. Other coups include one of Freud's grandest works, Large Interior, W11 (After Watteau), not seen in the UK for a decade, and Portrait of the Hound, his final, unfinished painting.

"It's a balancing act for lenders," says Howgate. "Works, which quite often hang on their walls, have to come down for a year and that creates quite a gap. But on the other hand their work is going to be hanging in this really important exhibition in a great venue, so it's prestigious to be part of it. And it's happening at a time when the world's attention is going to be on the UK and London in particular."

The NPG is anticipating around 160,000 visitors, which would match the number that came to see David Hockney Portraits: Life Love Art in 2006 (also curated by Howgate), their record for a paid-admittance show. Denise Vogelsang, head of marketing, advises booking in advance and coming in the morning; an "early-bird offer", for example, gives you two-for-one tickets for the first slot of the day. "But the show takes over pretty much the whole of the ground floor," says Vogelsang, "so it's a bigger space than we normally have and we can accommodate a larger number of visitors without it feeling too crowded."

Howgate is adamant that Lucian Freud: Portraits be viewed as "a celebration, not a memorial", and she points out that the artist had seen and approved the paintings that are being shown, even the layout of the exhibition and the merchandise. Nevertheless, it will be almost impossible to view the show, which spans 1939 to 2011, without speculating on Freud's colourful personal life. His two wives and assorted lovers are prominently featured, and it sometimes feels that you can see relationships deteriorating over the course of their sittings.

It will also be hard not to consider Freud's legacy as you wander round. "It's just really sad that Lucian isn't going to see it because he would have been incredibly moved by it," says Howgate. "Obviously his family are all going to come, so it's going to be an emotional time for them and that is going to make it all the more powerful. There was a feeling in the art world that a real master had died, and I think it will become even more clear that we have lost one of the greatest realist painters of the 20th century."

Lucian Freud: Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery, London WC2, 9 February-27 May

JMW Turner: National Gallery

The venerable National Gallery was just five years old in 1829 when JMW Turner wrote a will leaving his entire oeuvre – more than 1,000 works – to the nation. The artist had just one stipulation: when he died, he wanted a pair of his own paintings (Dido Building Carthage and Sun Rising Through Vapour) hung between two landscapes (what he called The Seaport and The Mill) by a baroque artist who had inspired him more than any other, Claude Lorrain. The request is still honoured to this day, in the cosy, octagonal room 15, but in March the National Gallery is preparing a much grander statement of the affinity between the two masters.

Turner will be the draw for most visitors but Jill Preston, the National Gallery's head of communications, believes that Claude's mastery of light and composition will be a revelation. "We're hoping that a lot of people out there will, through the Turner name, be introduced to Claude for the first time," she says. "Outside the art world a lot of people who are not familiar with Claude will find his work absolutely delightful, really inspiring."

Turner was formally introduced to the work of Claude, who died almost a century before he was born, when two of his landscapes came through London in 1799. These paintings, along with Turner's sketches of them, open the exhibition. "They really caused a splash those two Claudes, they were what everybody was talking about," says Susan Foister, deputy director of the National Gallery. "The sketchbooks record Turner's reactions to these works and he refers to them again and again throughout his career because it's material he can keep reusing but making different each time. This room really sets the scene for their relationship."
Turner Inspired: In Light of Claude might seem the most traditional of the big 2012 shows, but the National Gallery believes it has much to intrigue enthusiasts of Hockney, Freud, even Hirst. "Our show "is about looking backwards and forwards at the same time," she says. "Turner saw that you could look at a work painted decades earlier and make something very different of it. That's what artists go on doing and I think that's what Turner was showing he could do with Claude."

Preston is determined to spread the word that the gallery is becoming more rounded, less stuffy even. The programme for 2012 includes a show where contemporary artists, dancers and poets respond to three works by Titian. Friday Lates, where the collection and shows stay open till 9pm, offers live music, debates and a roomful of people sat cross-legged with pencils and paper doing a Talk and Draw session. "We would like the process of discovering an exhibition to be an active one," she says.

"Five million people come to the National Gallery each year so variety is very important."

Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude is at the National Gallery, London WC2, 14 March-5 June

Damien Hirst: Tate Modern

Everyone in the art world agrees: the factor that has by far the biggest impact on the success of an exhibition is the fame of the artist. This is probably why Marc Sands, director of Tate media and audiences, can't help smiling broadly as he talks about Damien Hirst's first UK retrospective, opening at the Tate Modern in April. "It will be the most talked-about show of the year," he predicts. "The name recognition couldn't be much higher. I've never met more people with a view on an artist. Largely it tends to be more on the artist, whom they have probably never met, than it is on the work that many of them have never seen."

The 46-year-old Hirst will always polarise opinion, Sands concedes, but he hopes visitors can suspend judgment until they see the work, dating from 1988 to the present day. "The divisive nature will only make the discussion, the debate, the interest more prickly and more alive," he says. "I already know what some newspapers will say, but the public should decide for themselves."

For the curator, Ann Gallagher, Tate's head of collections, the exhibition started with a single work: the 14ft tiger shark suspended in formaldehyde or, if you prefer, The Physical Impossibility Of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living from 1991. "For obvious reasons, it's a piece that everyone would want to see," she says.

Most of Hirst's most notorious pieces will also be among the 70-odd works: there are spot and spin paintings, medicine cabinets and the £50m platinum and diamond skull, For The Love Of God, will be displayed in the Turbine Hall for the first 12 weeks. There's also a room devoted to the works he sold for £111m at Sotheby's in September 2008, the day before Lehman Brothers disintegrated. But Gallagher is keen to draw attention to lesser-known exhibits. She is particularly excited by the reconstitution of 1991's In And Out Of Love, which fills two rooms with hundreds of tropical butterflies, some of which are spawned from canvases on the wall.

There is no room in the exhibition for Hirst's recent, little-appreciated skull paintings, but there will be at least one new piece. Gallagher, however, remains tight-lipped as to what form it might take. "You have to leave something as a surprise." There has already been controversy earlier this month with reports – subsequently denied – that David Hockney had criticised Hirst for his over-reliance of assistants. For the Tate, he has been a model collaborator: "Damien's very involved, he's very busy, but he has a good team," says Gallagher. Sands has found him "hands-on, but with an incredibly light touch".

Any rivalry between Hockney and Hirst is likely to be settled after the summer by visitor figures. Sands is quietly confident. "If you come to London as a tourist, you're likely to go to Buckingham Palace, Tate Modern, the British Museum and Camden market," he says, "not necessarily in that order." Gallagher has a much simpler ambition: "I'd like people to come and actually look at Damien Hirst's work," she says. "Whatever they may have heard about him previously, just look at the work."

Damien Hirst is at Tate Modern, London SE1, 4 April-9 September © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 26 2011

The Tracey Emin effect: where art overcomes austerity

Turner, Hepworth, FirstSite – the success of new galleries is making the case for culture-led regeneration

Across the UK, 2012 will be the year where art meets sport in hundreds of towns and villages. Such is the yearning for new cultural experiences outside the capital that the Cultural Olympiad has the power to regenerate ailing parts of the country, if the events are of a high enough quality. My experience in a corner of Kent has taught me that.

As chair of the Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate, one of the south-east's most deprived towns, I have witnessed one of the cultural success stories of 2011 at first hand. More than a third of a million visitors have come through its doors since it opened in April, more than twice the predicted number in half the time. Some are locals, including thousands who have never been to a gallery before; others have come from much further afield, including foreign tourists who have added it to their must-see destinations in Britain. According to research, more than 15,000 of the visitors so far say they have never been to an art gallery or museum in their lives.

Margate might be blazing a trail, but it is far from unique. Galleries have blossomed across the regions over the past decade. One or two may have struggled to make their mark, but the vast majority have received critical and community acclaim. The Baltic in Gateshead is thriving again, as its hosting of the Turner prize attests; Nottingham Contemporary opened to great plaudits in 2009; the FirstSite art gallery in Colchester is a welcome addition; and the arrival of the Hepworth Wakefield last May – the second of David Chipperfield's fantastic constructions after Turner Contemporary – creates an artistic hub in south Yorkshire, with the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and the Henry Moore Institute nearby.

The Ikon has great expansion plans for a new museum quarter in the centre of Birmingham, comprising a museum of photography and a new museum of international art dating from 2000 – all linked to the arrival of high speed rail. Modern Art Oxford too has grand ambitions. Throw in the Arnolfini, resplendent on Bristol's waterfront, the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (Mima) and others, and art-goers will surely need no convincing that life does not begin and end in London – a lesson the Spanish and Germans learned a long time ago, and the French are catching up with too (think Lille and Metz).

Artistic institutions outside the capital – from the visual arts to theatre, music and beyond – have traditionally been overlooked by governments and private funders, so they must shout louder in order to be heard through a combination of excellence and strong local engagement. These two are not contradictory. Indeed, they enhance each other.

At Margate, where many local people were either sceptical or hostile to the idea of a new gallery, the scale of the success has transformed opinion. A new spirit of entrepreneurship is taking hold, even amid the economic gloom. The Old Town, a warren of lanes just behind the seafront, is packed with boutiques, pubs and cafes. With flair and business savvy, other parts of the town will follow suit.

It is still early to gauge the full extent of the gallery's economic and social impact, but initial research shows more than 35 new businesses have opened in the Old Town, with dozens of new jobs either created by Turner Contemporary or directly resulting from it. It was the regenerative effect, as much as the art and architecture, which led to the Queen's visit last month. Southeastern trains have registered a 30% increase in passengers on the route even before the opening of Turner and the Elements, the gallery's first major show of the painter's work. This will be followed by the first show of Tracey Emin's new works in her home town, and Margate will feature on the Today programme on Wednesday morning, which Emin is guest-editing.

So what are the broader lessons to be learned here? Clearly, in the new world of austerity, cultural institutions have to fight hard just to survive. But in some ways the chill is salutary. Artistic and other third-sector bodies should not rely on being "helped" or "saved" by the state just because they are, or think they are, "doing good". In broad terms, Darwinian rules should apply. The best will survive and thrive, if they have the right combination of excellence, inclusiveness, education and a strong business model. Those mired in an old-fashioned sense of entitlement are much more likely to fail. A mix of private and public funding should not be beyond the reach of institutions with ambition, wherever they are based and whether large or small.

Many more dynamic regional arts organisations are collaborating. Joint programming – in which galleries share the same or similar shows in consecutive seasons – is increasingly common. Sharing back office services is useful but its merits can be overstated; far more important is informal collaboration between directors, curators, finance managers and boards, now happening as a matter of course – some under the umbrella of a network called Plus Tate, some under the Arts Council, and some ad hoc. Galleries regularly cross-market: there is no competition for visitors between institutions in, say, the north-east and south-west. The biggest challenge, given the London-centric media, is to make sure potential tourists know of these galleries' existence – and success.

Hard-headed planning for long-term investment and benefit is one thing; short-term and short-sighted monetising is quite another. A key to bringing people into galleries, particularly new audiences, is free admission. It is, as Nick Serota, the director of the Tate, puts it, one of the signs of a civilised culture. British galleries and museums are, he adds, "uniquely egalitarian spaces" – unlike in many equivalent countries.

So are Turner, the Hepworth and FirstSite the last in a generation? The real problem is going to be the funding for capital projects in the future. With local authority budgets being slashed, and the Arts Council having to operate on lower budgets, the prospect for investment in new-build is slim. Yet the social and economic case for ambitious, culture-led regeneration has surely been made. To abandon the approach now, in its prime, would be a tragedy, particularly for those parts of the UK that many decision-makers struggle to reach. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 15 2011

Avalanche! JMW Turner paints up a storm

Continuing his series of wintry artworks, Jonathan Jones is blown over by the sublime force of JMW Turner's Swiss snowslide – The Fall of an Avalanche in the Grisons

November 27 2011

Eve King obituary

My mother, Eve King, who has died aged 95, was a widely respected art historian who taught and lectured at the University of London, the National Gallery, the Tate and the Victoria and Albert Museum. She gave a successful series of talks for Radio 3's Painting of the Month strand in the 1960s and opened up new worlds of art for her many students.

Eve's thinking about art was passionate and incisive, stimulating enthusiasm. She campaigned tirelessly for her favourite painters, including JMW Turner, and was a prime mover in the creation of the Turner Society in 1975.

Born Eve Davies, she had an art-loving father who was a city accountant, and an energetic, business-like mother. Eve went to Commonweal Lodge, a school in Purley, south London. In 1938, she became one of the first women to achieve an MA in art history from the Courtauld.

Eve married Alec Hyatt King in 1943, after they had met hill-walking. She was at the Board of Trade while he worked at Bletchley Park. Alec enjoyed a distinguished career in the British Library, heading the music department and publishing widely on music. Eve was a tower of strength for him, typing and editing his articles and books.

She was a fine and supportive mother and, once her children were old enough, she resumed her professional career teaching art history. She lectured and travelled widely for the National Association of Decorative and Fine Art Societies, whose foundation she helped to stimulate, and was a founder council member of the Friends of the Royal Academy.

Friendly and forthright, Eve believed in courtesy, honesty and integrity. She enjoyed a long retirement in Southwold, Suffolk, where she was an active member of the community, involved in the Women's Institute, the Red Cross and the Southwold Decorative and Fine Art Society among many other organisations. Her life showed what can be achieved with hard work, application and a first-class mind.

Alec died in 1995. Eve is survived by me and my brother, David; her sister, Joyce; three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 13 2011

Turner 'used science to paint the sun'

Biographer suggests Turner was fascinated by science and applied the latest theories to his paintings

He is known as one of the greatest and most dramatic painters of the elements, a revolutionary who was fascinated by the natural world. Now fresh research suggests JMW Turner's work was also rooted in groundbreaking scientific theories.

A newly published book that will accompany a big exhibition of the artist's work next year at Turner Contemporary, in Margate, examines in detail the artist's treatment of fire, water, air and earth.

The Turner biographer James Hamilton has uncovered compelling evidence that the artist was far more interested in cutting-edge scientific theories than has been thought.

One painting in particular – The Festival of the Opening of the Vintage at Mâcon – holds, Hamilton believes, a fascinating secret.

The painting, executed in 1803 as Turner travelled through France, is dominated by a ferocious sun, and Hamilton argues that it is painted in an entirely new and revolutionary way, based on scientific theories expounded by the astronomer Sir William Herschel.

Herschel gave a groundbreaking lecture to the Royal Society in 1801, in which he revealed his discovery that the sun had a surface with "openings, shallows, ridges, nodules, corrugations, indentations and pores".

At the same time, in the same building, members of the Royal Academy were arranging and discussing an exhibition that included Turner's masterpiece Dutch Boats in a Gale, also known as The Bridgewater Sea Piece, which can now be seen in the National Gallery.

Herschel's lecture was sensational stuff because the sun had always been something strangely unknowable.

Hamilton said Herschel examined the sun through his telescope near Slough, passing the light through watered ink, "and he saw the sun, for the first time, as an object. He saw it had a surface".

Not long after the discovery, Turner was in France painting the Mâcon festivities and appears to have painted the sun as Herschel had described.

"In a sense you can't really see it, you can't focus on it, but if you look very, very closely there is a tiny little disc which is in three distinct parts," said Hamilton. "They are painted in different ways – there's a dab and a wipe and sort of flick of the brush. He is making it into something, he is giving it a surface and coming so close to Herschel's lecture and his naming of parts, one has to see them as connected events."

Hamilton said Turner's sun was more than art – it was almost experimental science. It is a painting the academic knows well as he was for seven years keeper of the Sheffield gallery where, he says, the painting was "one of my pals". But it is not the only evidence of Turner's close relationship with science.

"He was fascinated by science and scientists and what they were achieving," Hamilton said.

Turner was friends with Michael Faraday and the mathematician Mary Somerville, and knew the anatomist and palaeontologist Richard Owen and chemist Humphry Davy.

Because the RA was with the Royal Society in the same building – now the Courtauld Gallery – there was fluidity between the artists and scientists, with some, such as Thomas Lawrence, being members of both organisations. Faraday and Turner, in particular, could have been kindred spirits, sharing many common passions, not least an enormous interest in storms.

Harvey is convinced that Turner's conversations with Faraday and his ideas directly affected the painter's amazing landscapes.

"We do know they talked about pigments and Faraday gave him advice on how best to test the rate of discolouration and change of pigments in the very smoky London," he said.

"They talked, but of course we'll never know for sure about what. It can't have been banalities."

Turner's fascination with science and the many discoveries being made came at a pivotal time in the histories of art and science – these were the years in which the gap was widening, and they were going their separate ways. "Science and art were becoming less of a brotherhood," said Hamilton.

Hamilton said he had always been interested in the crossover between art and science and originally studied mechanical engineering before finishing up with a history of art degree.

"There is more to find, there are more congruences and combinations to uncover. It is a fascinating area to be working in and lots of clues are in his paintings – some heavily disguised and some in which he is feeling his way towards something and not necessarily finding it."

The findings are detailed in one of several essays in the book Turner and the Elements, published by Hirmer.

The Turner and the Elements show is currently on display at the Muzeum Narodowe in Krakow and will open in Margate in January, the gallery's first major show of the painter's work since opening in its dramatic seaside location last April. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 09 2011

The 10 best watercolours

As Tate Britian reviews the history of the watercolour the Observer's art critic selects her 10 favourite paintings in the medium

1 David Hockney Self-Portrait with Red Braces (2003)

Leaning in close to the mirror, peering over the top of his glasses, Hockney stares so hard at himself his eyes are nearly glazed with looking. He is painting himself literally in the act. The brush, which he cannot see at this precise moment, is forming a line out of the very watercolour from which it is made. A blot of black has escaped. Hockney, virtuoso draughtsman, great technician in every medium from oil to print to coloured crayon, is challenging himself with quick-drying, no-corrections watercolour. The picture is almost life-size. Hockney is putting himself on the spot.

2 JMW Turner The Burning of the Houses of Parliament (1834)

Turner's sequence of watercolours, made as the Houses of Parliament burned down right before his eyes, is one of the great wonders of the watercolour world. An immense conflagration lighting up the sky, reflected in the Thames below, struts, towers and windows fleetingly visible among the flames, it's all dashed down in the heat of the moment. A contemporary described Turner 'pouring wet paint on to the paper till it was saturated, he tore, he scratched, he scrabbled in a kind of frenzy.' The brush movements are violent, the colour contrasts sudden: it's action painting, with the trickiest medium, long before the 20th century.

3 Arthur Melville The Little Bullfight, "Bravo Toro!" (c1892)

The Scottish painter Arthur Melville was one of the supreme watercolourists of his age, specialising in wet-on-wet paintings in brilliant melting colour. But sheer range may have stymied his reputation. Venetian nights, desert days, cabbages in Greenock, he moves widely in both subject and style. His quickfire watercolours of Parisian cabarets presage abstract expressionism, and here he focuses in and out of the scene like a cinematographer. High detail in the audience fades to a lacuna where the frenzy of death is taking place. Over and again, Melville seems like a real one-off.

4 William Blake The Judgment of Paris (1811)

The Trojan prince Paris is forced to judge a beauty contest of goddesses. Fatally, he picks Aphrodite over Hera and Athena. Blake shows the moment at which he hands her the golden apple. Eros streams into the air, apparently elated, but above him black Discord unfurls with flames in his hands. The bodies are lithe, liable to levitate with their transparent limbs. Shape-shifters, sky-divers, wraiths, Blake's figures are always superhuman. The look is strenuous, yet each figure is airy, a figment of outline and wash that lives in the page. This is a rare watercolour; most of Blake's images became prints.

5 Eric Ravilious The Greenhouse: Cyclamen and Tomatoes (1935)

Any watercolour by Eric Ravilious deserves its place here, but this one shows what a world the medium can make in and of itself with transparent colour and a sheet of paper. Ravilious's greenhouse has the atmosphere of a dream. Everything is in perfect order, yet there is no sign of a gardener, unless perhaps God? Door opens on to door, on to door. The perspective is pristine, the painting so clear, light and symmetrical in both form and content, the white paper burning through the foliage like sunlight. It is the greenhouse from paradise. Ravilious is the lost genius of British art: his plane crashed over Iceland during the second world war. His body was never found.

6 Alexander Cozens A Blot: Tigers (c1770-80)

Colour suspended in water: potential for endless accidents as the water seeps or spills or the brush is overloaded. Alexander Cozens found form in these mishaps. Out of accidental blots, random images would begin to emerge which Cozens would then develop using grey or brown wash. Mostly these messes resolved into imaginary landscapes, but here he saw powerful animals, crouching, dormant, their force momentarily contained. Others might have seen something else. The power of Cozens's art lies in its inchoate shapes and energies, its multiple possibilities. The artist was said to be the illegitimate son of Peter the Great.

7 Samuel Palmer Cornfield by Moonlight (c1930)

Palmer's "moonlight" paintings all look as if they must be visions, with their radiant moons and glimmering stars, but in fact they are intensely particular about reality. The man with the smock, dog and staff is pausing among avenues of sheaves cut sharp as straw, with the rolling hills around Shoreham in the distance. Light is the main protagonist, binding landscape and man snugly together, and the atmosphere is reverential; look close and you will see a tinier world of detail praised in the rich surface. Palmer was inspired by Blake, among others, and founded an early avant-garde movement known as the Ancients.

8 John Sell Cotman Greta Bridge (c1807)

Cotman had been staying at Rokeby Hall (once home of Velázquez's Venus). The bridge across the river Greta was in one corner of the park, and Cotman drew it over and again. But in watercolour he gives it an almost ethereal beauty. Everything is held still and in perfect equipoise – the sky above, the river below, the bridge a pale platonic ideal over the silver water. Nature as abstract, geometric, all detail omitted, the painting is a feat of control and tonal delicacy. Cotman's colours got brighter, and he would later enrich them with rice paste, but this picture, made when he was 25, is surely his greatest work.

9 Gwen John Girls in a Church (c1920)

Gwen John moved to the village of Meudon outside Paris in 1911. There she began to go to church services at a local convent. The watercolours she made of children and nuns, and of the relationships between them and the words of the service, are some of her most sensitive and private paintings. This one is a hazy moment of youthful concentration, the girls as soft and mute as the air around them. John usually sat at the back sketching in pencil, washing in the paint afterwards in the studio, but this one is entirely formed of watercolour. She painted in this church for 20 years.

10 Isaac Oliver A Man Against a Background of Flames (c1600)

What a concept: the living man against a wall of death, his mind (and desires) on fire. The sitter's identity is not known, but his character is all there in the acute face, the tousled locks, the shirt open to the waist as he presents his locket, and his feelings, in the heat of passion. Painted by the French-born Oliver on a piece of vellum no bigger than a baby's palm, using squirrel-hair brushes delicate enough to describe the finest stubble, this watercolour is far bigger than its scale. A fiery keepsake, condensing portrait and love poem, it's the equivalent of an Elizabethan sonnet. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 07 2011

Turner Contemporary gallery – in pictures

Photographer Richard Bryant gives us a preview of David Chipperfield's new Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate, Kent

April 06 2011

Turner Contemporary: boardwalk empire

Margate's brand new gallery stands where JMW Turner painted his epic seascapes. Will it attract artists back to the town?

"The sun is God." These are said to be the last words Joseph Mallord William Turner spoke from his London deathbed as the light streamed through his window. Not quite true: what the artist actually said, to his doctor, was "Go downstairs and get yourself a glass of sherry." The more famous phrase was an invention of Turner's friend, John Ruskin, the critic who made the artist a kind of demigod, championing his every brushstroke.

Turner Contemporary, a brand-new public art gallery that opens on the seafront at Margate next week, glories in sunlight. It rises from the site of the lodging house where the artist enjoyed the ample favours of its landlady, Sophia Booth. It was from this north Kent beach, where the North Sea wrestles with the Thames Estuary, that Turner immortalised in oils and watercolours the sunlight and seascapes that would make him Britain's greatest painter.

The Turner Contemporary project itself began back in 2001. Under the directorship of Victoria Pomery, the arts organisation has been putting on exhibitions and events in a variety of local buildings; to date, more than 690,000 people have visited Turner Contemporary shows or taken part in workshops and courses in Margate, a town of high unemployment and otherwise limited opportunities for artists. As well as providing a place where art can be seen, the building has been built to give artists a space to work with local people.

Its original design, by Norwegian architects Snøhetta and Britain's Stephen Spence, would have been situated right at the end of the town's harbour mouth. Intended to open in 2007, it would have cost around £55m and been prey to the forces of nature that make for memorable paintings, but are no friend to architecture.

"It was a very romantic proposition," says architect David Chipperfield who designed its replacement after a consultation process involving 8,000 locals. "I liked the idea very much, but only on paper. The reality here is a seafront that can be very tough and unforgiving, and any building facing it has to be extremely robust."

What Chipperfield has designed is further inland, a bold yet simple gallery that has cost £17.5m. From a distance it appears to be a sequence of industrial-era boat sheds, but close up reveals itself as an interconnected set of giant artists' studios sheathed in walls of thick translucent glass. During the course of a day they capture, reflect and refract the many moods of the sun and sea. The building changes colour, acting as an architectural canvas on which the light that inspired Turner can play.

"It's very fortunate", says Chipperfield, "that the gallery faces due north, as, of course does Margate, which is not often the case of holiday resorts in the northern hemisphere. But this means that we get the light that works best for artists and the artworks."

As you walk in, a huge lobby window frames the north Kent horizon like a giant Turner painting (the artist's paintings will be displayed here in the upcoming Turner and the Elements show planned for January 2012, but exhibitions of contemporary artists will be the norm). Walking around the ground floor – a serenely austere interior made of little more than polished concrete and glass – natural light seeps everywhere. It brightens the generous lobby, with its corner cafe overlooking the sandy beach, and animates the big study rooms where adults and school parties alike will learn about contemporary art. Upstairs in the galleries, the light is channelled through high studio windows and from bands of glass set into the high, sloping roofs.

"The idea is very simple", says Chipperfield. "The gallery isn't a museum. It doesn't have a permanent collection. It's a place where art is experienced, nurtured and created. So we've made it as much like a studio as possible. We've also made the gap between the entrance and the galleries as small as we could. I'm not a fan of galleries that can seem like air terminals, where the cafes, shops and everything else appear to take precedence over getting people to the art." Indeed, the atmosphere that permeates Turner Contemporary is one of immediacy and purposefulness. There is indeed a studio-like rawness here that artists will like.

This is the first major building that Chipperfield has completed in Britain since the River and Rowing Museum at Henley-on-Thames, which opened in 1998. Since then there has also been the BBC headquarters in Glasgow, which was finished by another architect and opened in 2007 (Chipperfield prefers not to discuss it). He was hugely acclaimed for his Neues museum in Berlin, an inspiring fusion of intelligently renovated and new design that has become a model of how to push historic architecture forward without betraying the past; in 2011, he won the Queen's Royal Gold Medal – along with the Pritzker prize, one of the two most important architectural awards. It was high time this exacting architect completed another new building in his own country.

'I can't design a wacky building'

A lot depends on the gallery's success. As Margate-born Tracey Emin puts it: "The brilliant thing about Turner Contemporary is that is has given [local] people hope that things are going to change here, and also to put Margate back on the map." Much like talk of an Olympic legacy in east London, the big ambition is that the Turner Contemporary will help kickstart urban regeneration. Once a popular seaside resort, in the 60s Margate's economy was fatally wounded by the advent of cheap package holidays to Spain. And yet, though it's rough around the edges, the town boasts a fine seafront and a fascinating mixture of historic buildings, though many are in need of love and care. Can this modestly sized gallery have a similar impact as Frank Gehry's eye-catching Guggenheim museum did in the rundown port of Bilbao?

"It's very hard to say,"says Chipperfield. "Architects can only design buildings to do the best job they can, but of course I understand the hopes here. I can't design a wacky, clown-like building – that's not my style – but I do think the Turner will become a true public place where people can meet, be inspired, inspire one another and feel somehow uplifted."

The result is a quiet triumph for all of those involved, sure to encourage a new generation of artists. "I would like the building to be closer to the sea than it is," says Chipperfield, "but that would have meant rerouting the path of the Margate lifeboat. I would also like to have had more money to spend on the glass facade to give it that bit more subtlety, but, then, we've also been able to do a lot on a modest budget. I hope to prove – although time will tell – that you don't have to design a building that looks like a big toy to make a success of a new public art gallery."

Shortly before I left Turner Contemporary, the sun set to spectacular effect, warming Chipperfield's concrete floors and walls, even though the wind howled mercilessly and darkening clouds threatened rain. Turner would have loved it.

• Turner Contemporary opens to the public on 16 April. Members of Guardian Extra can win two pairs of tickets to attend the gallery preview event the evening of 15 April. The prize includes one night's hotel accommodation. Details: © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Turner Contemporary: 'A pure art space' – video

Turner Contemporary, designed by architect David Chipperfield, is a new cultural centre on Margate's seafront inspired by JMW Turner's legacy in the town. Jonathan Glancey talks to the architect about the imposing structure ahead of its opening

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