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Late Turner: Painting Set Free

Rachel Giles

Tate Britain
Until January 24

The experience of looking at Turner's paintings in this exhibition is hard to put into words. It's physical, as you encounter the layers of paint, the brushwork, the canvas and the paper; it's visual and immersive, lyrical and poetic all at once. The eye discerns recognisable forms: mountains, castles, landscapes or the sea; but then abstraction takes over. And the colour, and the dynamism - paint pushed into twisting vortices - mainline into your emotions. Turner's painting is its own language. I don't often cry in front of paintings, but I did here.

The ambition of this show is very clear: to present a new view of Turner's late work, painted in the last 15 years of his life. Modernist interpreters seek to cast him as a visionary, out of step with his time: a misunderstood prophet of Impressionism and abstraction who only received the recognition he deserved in the 20th century. His late painting, they maintain, broke free from a nineteenth century context, to anticipate 20th-century concerns.

In contrast, this exhibition seeks to liberate his painting from this Modernist reading, viewing it in the context of his time, arguing that he was actively engaged with public life and the art world, travelling, teaching and exhibiting, and taking his inspiration from contemporary events and developments in technology. His late paintings received vicious criticism, but his innovations during this period, with form, abstraction and format, were a natural progression, Tate says, of what he was always attempting throughout his career: to innovate and express with images what could not be expressed in any other way.

Turner died in 1851, and the show begins with his demise. The painter's spectacles - adjusted for severe presbyopia, the inability to focus on near objects - and two of his palettes, one smeared with paint, are on display like holy relics. There's also his death mask, which is shocking in its replication of the moment of death - Turner's sunken cheeks, a toothless gaping mouth. The aura of greatness around a painter like Turner can make the real person seem indistinct, but these objects are material reminders of his humanity.

The following rooms are all about creativity, innovation and energy. We're shown example after example of Turner's remarkable productivity and determination in his last fifteen years as a practising artist. There are also examples of how he innovated with format and colour, undeterred by hostile critical reaction. In his 60s, Turner was still travelling frenetically, and there are several rooms of watercolours and oils inspired by trips to France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy.

It was written in Art Union, during Turner's own time, that Venice might have been built to be painted by him. His watercolours, painted during a two-week trip in 1840, are exquisite. His use of wet-in-wet is particularly suited to conveying the city's water and light, and details of buildings are masterly (Turner studied architecture as a young man). Colour is vibrant, rich, and surprisingly opaque, which gives these small works real intensity. A watercolour sketch of his bedroom in the Hotel Europa is an intimate scene, made up of sweeps of blue-green, yellow and red; details such as the painted stucco on the ceiling, are picked out, but the eye is led to the astonishing view from the window of St Mark's Square.

Santa Maria della Salute, Night Scene with Rockets uses watercolour and gouache. A lone firework casts an arching streak in the sky and lights up a patch of cloud in turquoise; beyond, a grey smudge connotes the dome of the church; below, in teal and black, you see lights twinkling dimly in the water, and the sinister shape of a gondola. In a pair of paintings, he first depicts revellers setting off by boat at twilight to a masked ball, and then again, returning at dawn.

His oils, as well, are extraordinary. Turner used the topographical observations from his travels to create mythical landscapes. Tobias and the Angel is suffused with a misty golden haze with the two figures, one human, one unearthly, moving towards the light. In Snow Storm - Steam Boat off a Harbour's Mouth […], a steam boat struggles against the raw power of nature. Rain, Steam and Speed also shows Turner engaging with new technology.

These paintings were and still are brilliantly innovative. There is great pathos, and, often, great joy in beholding them. Turner can depict moments in time so adeptly - whether that moment is a historical shift or a daily event like a sunrise over a mountain. Here there is abundant life: nature, science, the vitality of the artist, the masterly outworking of one human's unique vision. It seems to resonate with our own experience. The unspoken connection Turner creates is profound and moving, and so I cried. Allow yourself the gift of going to see this.