Turner and Tohaku

June 25, 2010

I watched a documentary on JMW Turner recently and was surprised to learn that he left his collection to the British nation – that is, 300 paintings, 3,000 watercolours and 20,000 sketches. Turner was accepted into the Royal Academy as an apprentice at the tender age of 14. He made a name for himself from a young age, travelling around England, often on foot, to draw and sketch. Even though he started painting and drawing professionally at such a young age, and lived until he was 76 years old, 32,000 is still a shockingly large number of works to bequeath. This is not even his life’s work, as it doesn’t include all of the works he painted on commission or sold in his lifetime.

During Turner’s time (1775–1851) it was common for artists to begin by copying the Old Masters until they had, well, mastered them. I can’t help comparing this style of education to the Japanese way of learning. Even today, to become competent in shodo (calligraphy), ikebana (flower arranging), or chanoyu (tea ceremony) you begin by copying your teacher’s work over and over. This repetitive form of education, while tedious, is meant to instill the skills deep within, until they become muscle memory and something akin to instinct. It is only after you have spent years learning the rules that you can break them and experiment. This style of teaching doesn’t appear to align with contemporary society. In fact, it seems to have been lost in contemporary Western culture completely. People want to master skills as quickly as possible and I think this is to the detriment of art as well as other areas of life. As head of the Honnoji ikebana school told me, “You can do a short course in ikebana, one or two years. But it is like fast food – it is not good for you.”

Turner continued to work until late in life, and in his later years he experimented more and more with style and technique. His works focussed on atmospheric skies and became more abstract. Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway is a good example of his depiction of ephemeral light. It is as if he is attempting to paint air. I can’t help but compare this to the work of Japanese artist Tohaku Hasegawa (1539–1610) who was painting almost 300 years before Turner. In his famous work Pine Trees he deploys empty space to depict the mist – what Tohaku called “expressing without painting”. It seems that both artists came to the conclusion that less is more, and they appear to be striving for similar things – depicting that which is beyond our reach, something we can’t quite grasp.

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One Response to “Turner and Tohaku”

  1. Others have commented before on affinties between Turner and Japanese art. Unfortunately we still have no proper Turner Gallery which could make the public better informed.

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