‘Mere Freaks of Chromomania’

Two days in Margate and two exhilarating visits to Turner: Adventures In Colour – what have I learned?

Turner the man was driven and contradictory, by turns acquiescent to public taste, respectful of tradition and suddenly dismissive of it, revolutionary, almost self destructive. Such change comes slowly of course but can seem to manifest itself quickly in the eyes of collectors and critics.

Incisively curated, this small exhibition is seasoned with wonderful reactions by Turner’s contemporaries to both the works on display and Turner’s himself, ‘In his knowledge of colour he (Turner) is equalled by none,’ noted one reviewer, before wryly observing , ‘and it is this which gains him much admiration and many enemies.’ 

It took a while for these enemies to gather however, and as Turner went from strength to strength the plaudits grew, for here was an artist with his finger firmly on the pulse of popular taste, for this was the period of his greats; the Temeraire, Modern Italy and all of that bright popular Italianate luminescence which transformed industrialised England into another Eden.

Yet as his art matured and vision grew, Turner began to push the boundaries and patience of his clients. A recognised genius, Turner’s clients both wanted his work to be startlingly original and what they expected; that’s a square which is difficult to circle.

When money is tight and reputations are still to be won, we can all bend a bit to popular taste (as my many oils of Holkham Bay silently attest), but eventually smiles become strained, acquiescence fades and compromise seems – well, too much of a compromise.

Starting with little grumbles about the topographical veracity of his scenes, Turner’s clients vocalised how they felt about losing their creative mandate. Their views; genius should be bounded by topography to be valid, and that an artist of his stature should paint in committee.This could never work – and Turner broke decisively with it.

Turner could and no doubt did dismiss the odd disgruntled client, but even so, something was starting to become unhinged, Turner the quintessential demagogue was looking not to safely emulate the masters of the past, but towards building his own artistic legacy, and if that meant moving the odd church spire in the Venetian skyline or making the sun rise in the west, then reality had to bend now, to his vision.

Critics were supportive, but qualified: ‘Turner has struck out a new route by the singular mixture of prismatic colours, with which he represents sky and water. His scrutinising genius seems to tremble on the verge of some new discovery in colour, which may prove of the first importance to art. ‘

It didn’t. The final room neatly contrasts two of Turner’s latest and greatest works with one of the sturdy, almost academic ones which made his reputation with the ones that ruined it ‘Mere freaks of chromomania’ as the Spectator damningly concluded.

Shade and Darkness - the Evening of the Deluge exhibited 1843 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Mere freaks of chromomania , Turners late works were not seen in his time as being ‘of the first importance to art’. They are though.

Yet failures, though they were adjudged to be Turner’s late works, were indeed to prove of the first importance to art.

So Turner made it his business to meet (and exceed) public expectations before sacrificing that approbation on the altar of his creativity.

For me then, the interest here was not in Turner’s technical capability, creativity or dazzling use of colour, but in what people thought about it; for what measures of success do artists today have, but critical approbation?

It’s commonplace and obvious to say Turner was a great technician, an inventive colourist and a self obsessed, self seeking autodidact, and he was all these things, but he was and remains one of us; an artist ‘trembling in the verge’ of creative discovery.

And that, dear readers, is why the gallery was full of artists, there to understand themselves as much as Turner.  The lesson here, was not in the paintings but in how they were and are received.

The most illuminating moment of the exhibition? ‘Well that does nothing for me,’ dismissively remarked a visitor glancing sideways at Turner’s ethereal vision of The Salute, on her way no doubt to the safer ground of the Tate’s excellent coffee shop. Others stood in front of the work, lost in contemplation. Turner would be pleased his work can still provoke and divide opinion, and that might just be the test of great art.

Venice with the Salute c.1840-5 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

‘Well that does nothing for me,’ I was delighted Turner’s work can still induce a healthy dislike for his creative vision. I adore it, for the record.

Topping and tailing the Turner exhibit were two stimulating contemporary rooms, on the ground floor, two selected pieces by the wonderful Yinko Shinobare, the best of which was The British Museum which I’ll let the gallery itself describe.

‘Presented alongside this new commission is Shonibare’s The British Library, a colourful work, celebrating and questioning how immigration has contributed to the British culture that we live in today. Shelves of books covered in colourful wax fabric fill the Gallery, their spines bearing the names of first and second generation immigrants who have enriched British society. From T.S. Eliot and Hans Holbein to Zaha Hadid, The British Library reminds us that the displacement of communities by global war has consequences that inform our lives and attitudes today.’

Colourful, powerful, thought provoking but utterly and regrettably unambiguous.

The British Library was a good work that spoke to the mind but sidestepped the imagination. If Turner teaches us anything it’s the power of the incomplete thought; art which provides imaginative space is always so much more compelling. There was imagination here – but no imaginative space for us, the viewers.


An important message, visually striking and delivered with great clarity; immigration is a force for good. It’s an important message but Turner teaches us that ambiguity will always resonate more than factual delivery. Shonibare’s important work might be colourful but is at odds to the great themes of the Turner show.

The British Library was accompanied by an end of Empire themed sculpture where the two great powers literally engage in the balance of power and diplomacy. Apparently the best way to visualise the balancing act of the two great powers was to err… show them, well… balancing. Really?

I don’t mind being spoon fed and I’m not keen on art which is so aesthetic and remote as to be inaccessible (see my previous posts on the Turner Prize), but if there’s an award somewhere for visualising the blinking obvious then this has to be a contender.

Striking? Yes, memorable – certainly, clear, absolutely but did it evoke deeper feelings in me than the idea that two great powers played a game of diplomacy with the world- no not really and I already knew that.

Art has to do a bit more than be just spectacle – luckily it does upstairs with both Turner’s work and a stunning contemporary piece.


Look its the balance of diplomacy, represented as the balance of diplomacy…

The upstairs gallery housed a much more relevant and resonant work to the Turner show by John Akomfrah, Vertigo Sea. Again, I’ll let the gallery introduce it.

Turner Contemporary is a partner on the UK tour of John Akomfrah’s multi-screen installation Vertigo Sea, premiered at the 2015 Venice Biennale.

A meditation on whaling, the environment and our relationship with the sea, the work is a film essay continuing the ‘recycled aesthetic’ of John Akomfrah’s recent gallery pieces, fusing archive material, original footage and readings from classical sources.

Shot on the Isle of Skye, in the Faroe Isles and in the North of Greenland and Norway, the film is inspired in part by two influential books: Hermand Meville’s Moby Dick (1851) and Heathcote Williams’ Whale Nation (1988). Also referenced is the incident on board the slave ship Zong that led JMW Turner to paint The Slave Ship almost a century later, exhibiting it in 1840 to coincide with a meeting of the British Anti-Slavery Society.’


Not to be missed; Vertigo Sea encapsulates Turner’s themes of ambiguity, recall and evoking imaginative space.

Ambiguous, evocative, ephemeral, imaginative, Vertigo Sea exemplified Turner’s central themes of the artist as a conjurer of emotional responses to the mundane reality of life. It worked – it really did and I applaud it.

There are bigger galleries and more expansive shows, however the big themes are here. Highly recommended.

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