Mr. Turner: A Film About the Life of Landscape Artist J.M.W. Turner

Joseph Mallord William Turner, a self-portrait

Joseph Mallord William Turner, a self-portrait

Joseph Mallord William Turner lived from 1775 to 1851 and was known as a landscape painter in the English Romantic period. While he lived, he created much controversy in the field of art but now critics revere him as an artist who showed that landscape painting could rival other genres for beauty and statement. At the time, historical paintings were very popular, and in retrospect, Turner’s work rivaled the content of the historical painting by just examining the local landscape. He was known as the “painter of light” in his day and worked in oils and watercolor. People today remember him for his oil painting, but in fact he was considered a master in both mediums. Some people consider his work a prelude to Impressionism, and part of the controversy of his style was in the way he would approach some pieces with a tendency toward the Abstract long before that style was conceived of let alone popular. He was an extremely prolific painter, and Wikipedia cites that he “produced over 550 oil paintings, 2,000 watercolours, and 30,000 paper works.”

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Fishermen at Sea

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Fishermen at Sea

Turner experienced a difficult and lonely childhood, and later worked for several architects. During this study period in art, his sketchbooks show studies in composition and perspective. He also studied topography with Thomas Malton. The architect Thomas Hardwick suggested that Turner continue painting rather than pursue his interest in architecture. Enrolled in academy, he would spend his winters painting and his summers traveling, particularly to Wales. As he became older, he grew more eccentric. His dying words were reported to have been, “The sun is God.”

Mr. Turner, a film by Mike Leigh starring Timothy Spall.  Limited release currently in NY and LA through Sony Pictures Classics

Mr. Turner, a film by Mike Leigh starring Timothy Spall. Limited release currently in NY and LA through Sony Pictures Classics

In October 2014, British filmmaker Mike Leigh wrote and directed Mr. Turner. The film starred Timothy Spall as Turner and Spall won the award for Best Actor at Cannes. Timothy Spall also learned to paint when he accepted the role of the beloved and famous British painter. According to Wikipedia sources, Sony Pictures Classics will handle the United States distribution, and scheduled a limited release date of 19 December 2014. Fandango lists a limited release in New York and Los Angeles for the film as of the New Year with no other showings as of yet. However the film is meeting with critical acclaim both professionally and on public review sites.

The film is a ‘warts and all’ depiction of Turner’s genius, wherein there is no bright shadow to applaud. Filmmaker Mike Leigh wanted to depict the life of Turner as a real human being subject to flaws, passions, depression and grappling with the world around him in a difficult period of history. He did outlandish things such as strapping himself to a ship’s mast in order to paint a snowstorm at sea. Turner’s love affairs were unusual and sometimes exploitative. He was a radical and a revolutionary, and an often anarchic member of London’s art societies.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Chichester Canal

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Chichester Canal

Film is useful to depict the otherwise silent stories that accompany artists to the grave. An artist may leave behind artwork by the tens of thousands and all of them fragments of a story, the story of their lives. In taking up those fragments and analyzing them, and sharing them again through a new lens with moving pictures, it is easy to see how one art, the art of cinematography, can renew public interest in another, the art of the landscape painting. Film reveals the man behind the art with the hope that the art left by Turner becomes even more precious to the world.