Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth. Courtesy AGO.

J.M.W Turner: Painting Set Free is the latest exhibit to feature at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It is a collection of more than fifty pieces of Turner’s artwork which showcase his later, experimental works.

A talented landscape painter, Turner’s romantic style of painting persisted even as he changed the medium in which he worked. Where he missed the mark, however, was in capturing the attention of his viewers.

Turner visited Switzerland, Italy, and France, and created basic watercolor compositions of Lake Geneva and the waterways of Venice.

The colors in paintings such as “Fisherman on the Lagoon, Moonlight” and “The Dogano, San Giorgio, Citella from the Steps of the Europa” are calming, but not particularly unique. The exhibit spends a lot of its energy focusing on a very similar kind of painting presented in different color schemes, which unfortunately fails to captivate the audience’s interest. 

However, as you stroll through the exhibition, a gratifying change is revealed at the introduction of Turner’s oil and canvas paintings. In contrast to the watercolor pieces that showcase Turner’s basic depictions of European landscape, the oil paintings are more complex. His obsession with light is intriguing, and the circular motion of the paint brush perfectly complements the faded saintly figures, noticeable in “The Angel Standing in the Sun.” Equally astounding is the “Shade and Darkness — The Evening of the Deluge.” At first sight, the painting portrays an abstract source of light; however, as you near the painting and begin to examine the details, you notice the faint outline of human and animal figures swirling around the center of the canvas.   

Many of Turner’s naval portraits also incorporate this recurring theme of light. His two famous paintings, “Snow Storm” and “Peace – Burial at Sea,” are spectacular examples of the balance between tranquility and chaos. The dark scenes of an aggressive sea are interrupted with a gleaming and soft touch of light. The brush strokes are undefined and unpredictable, which makes you wonder what Turner’s intentions were when creating his pieces. 

While segments of the exhibit can be tedious, Painting Set Free is worth attending for the moments of reward that come with the occasional Turner ‘masterpiece.’ While Turner certainly isn’t for everyone, the representation of light that runs through his paintings showcase a captivating progression of the British painter’s career. 

J.M.W Turner: Painting Set Free runs until January 31, 2016 at the AGO.

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