I recently moved to Canberra, the capital of Australia, to take up research in geology. Canberra has a pretty amusing reputation culturally in Australia. It’s either thought of as a complete hole, or, ‘nice, but why would you?’ or as people often say, the problem with Canberra is it’s ‘full of politicians’. And I can’t say I’ve been swept away by glistening cultural and social happenings since being here, although it does have arguably Australia’s top-ranked university, which is why I am here.
One thing Canberra does have, apart from the seat of government and a spooky monument to USA-Australia relations at the Department of Defence of an eagle atop an obelisk, is Australia’s largest art gallery, The National Gallery of Australia.
Currently touring is an exhibition of JMW Turner’s works from the Tate Gallery in London. And what an exhibit it is. Chronicling his career all the way up to his later works (often involving the sea and maritime disasters), the show not only highlights his skill as an artist, but forcibly demonstrates his power.
As a photographer, myself, I have developed an intimate love-hate relationship with light. No image can do without it, and yet poorly used, it destroys the image. Both in the studio and in natural light, making the light do what you want it to do is a constant challenge. But at least I don’t have to paint the damned scene!
JMW Turner, on the other hand, did paint it. And his ability to deliver and ethereal yet strikingly realistic vision of light is unparalleled. This is a man who not just understood contrast, but understood how to use it without bashing the viewer over the head with it. Only on second thought do you realised what he is doing, he leads you through not just the painting, but the story within, purely though his use of the light. His works are full of symbolism, full of meaning, indeed he sometimes painted to capture tragedy and make political points, but it is not the pure symbolic language that tells the story. No, you are drawn in and around his paintings, yanked into the canvas to explore, never to leave again without knowing.
The swirling storms and tumultuous agony depicted in his maritime scenes, the serene majesty of his more pastoral works, the sublime majesty of his mountains. You are in there, trapped, until you make yourself feel the parquetry floor beneath your feet reminding you that you’re in a gallery.
If you ever get the chance, go and look at Turner’s paintings. I can’t think of a single landscape painter more in tune with his skill and his subject. And that’s coming from a fan of abstract impressionism! If you’re in Canberra, its on until September 15.
And here’s one of his works not at the NGA, but that will appeal to fellow geologists: “Eruption of Vesuvius”, from the creative commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ausbruch_des_Vesuvs,_1817.jpg