John Barrell reviews Late Turner: Painting Set Free at Tate Britain, on view through January 25, 2015.
Barrell writes that Turner "was an artist fully engaged in his time, anxious to communicate what he believed were important truths about the (then) modern world, but anxious too to sell work and to attract new commissions. His subject matter was not chosen as particularly suitable for formal experiments in abstraction: in his late works ‘he continued to explore visual perception, natural phenomena, modern life, the course of history and the social and ethical contexts that determine the endeavours of mankind’. In short, he was very much attuned to the mid-19th century world, to its economic and technological development, to its concerns with the lessons of history and the nation’s future prospects, to its debates about the contribution of art to civil society and to reflections on the nature of painting. There was nothing in his interest in social, cultural, ethical questions that he needed to be liberated from, that inhibited his commitment to the art of painting, to ‘handling oil paint and watercolour freely and using the resources of light and colour to choreograph the pictorial structure of his work’. On the contrary, it was the great range of his interest in, and his concern for, the time he lived in that prompted and promoted his ceaseless experimentation with the language of painting."