With an exhibition as major as Turner and the sublime in his hands, the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec (MNBAQ) might well be eager to reopen its doors. The museum institution welcomes visitors again, Wednesday, after four months of closure, being able to finally unveil the treasures that have been hanging on its walls since October 15.
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This exhibition is a “masterstroke,” General Director Jean-Luc Murray rightly told the handful of media admitted to the museum on Tuesday. The latter also stressed that tickets were sold out quickly and that reservations are already full for the first week of the exhibition “and the following days”.
Turner and the sublime is a grandiose retrospective of pivotal periods in the career of the greatest English painter and watercolorist, JWM Turner (1775-1851), from his beginnings in 1790 until the end, around 1840. It is presented exclusively in Canada and realized thanks to the Tate of London, which preserves the bequest of the artist.
A master of light effects, Turner took landscape art to a higher level than 19e century. Insatiable traveler – he traveled every summer for 50 years, walking up to 50 kilometers per day, sketchbook in hand – he is famous for its tumultuous seas, its sometimes shady, sometimes sunny skies, as well as its mountains dizzying.
His dramatic scenes in which the forces of nature are unleashed are part of the Romantic movement and make him a precursor of Impressionism. On his death, in addition to 300 completed works, Turner bequeathed some 30,000 works on paper, sketches “that he would probably never have exhibited,” said MNBAQ curator André Gilbert. Moreover, two of his notebooks that he took with him on a trip are on display in the exhibition, as are many sketches.
Divided into six sections, the chronological journey begins with Turner’s first landmark work, Fisherman at sea (1796), the first painting he exhibited at the age of 20 at the Royal Academy in London. He remains, to this day, the youngest academician to have been admitted. At the time, someone from a modest family was already considered a genius by his peers.
After working for architects, Turner painted some topographical watercolors, then was inspired by the landscapes of his native country, before starting to travel to Europe, first to Switzerland, an epic that led to a series of works on Alps.
Turner also traveled to Venice, “a fantastic place for an artist who is so interested in light,” says André Gilbert. The lagoon is the subject on which he lingered the longest in his career. “It has been more than 20 years that there have not been 15 works on Venice that have been brought together in the same exhibition”, rejoiced the curator.
Among the key works, we also find the famous Blue rigi, watercolor which was acquired by the Tate of London in 2007 for a record sum of £ 4.95 million and which is still, to this day, “the most expensive watercolor in the world”, emphasizes Mr. Gilbert.
The only Turner painting owned by the MNBAQ, Scene in Derbyshire (1827), has a whole history linked to Quebec. Not only was it part of the Maurice Duplessis collection, but it was discovered in 2002 that the painting depicted the Heights of Abraham, a place in England named in honor of James Wolfe.
The museum has done an exceptional lighting job, contrasting the works with the dark walls to better make the light emanate from them. The result is striking, especially in the last section of the exhibition, devoted to the peak of Turner’s career, around 1840, a period when he was not so obsessed with the landscape as with the effect of light, pushing his work even further towards abstraction.
Also, for the very first time, the MNBAQ combines the fine arts with an immersive technological experience, thanks to the contribution of videoscenist Lionel Arnould (Ex Machina, Le Trident) and the firm Peak Media.
At three places in the exhibition, the visitor is invited to enter a small room where one really has the impression of immersing oneself in a Turner canvas, with a sound environment and projections all in motion on the walls. The museum wanted here to make Turner’s work resonate with current climate change.
The exhibition Turner and the sublime is in place until May 2.