Turner’s Modern World review – a roaring, wondrous whirlpool of a show

Turner’s Modern World review – a roaring, wondrous whirlpool of a showOctober 26, 2020

Tate Britain, London
From the most devastating depiction of the slave trade ever to an erotically-charged shipwreck, JMW Turner’s heart-stopping maelstroms of sea and steam and smoke made him a true visionary of his age

It’s not standard practice for curators to draw attention to a masterpiece they failed to borrow. But right in the middle of Tate Britain’s roaring whirlpool of a Turner exhibition is a reproduction of his 1840 painting Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On). Apparently, it has become too frail to make the transatlantic journey from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts – another twist in the story of the most devastating work of art ever made about the British slave trade. So, instead of passing over its no-show, the exhibition demands you pause to mourn it – and what it depicts.

This painting belongs at the heart of Turner’s Modern World even though it’s just here as an idea, a concept, with an excerpt from David Dabydeen’s poem Turner next to the repro. That’s because this exhibition presents Turner as a passionate and engaged painter of modern life. It shows how alive he was to the liberations and oppressions of his revolutionary age. Born in London in 1775, into a world ruled by aristocrats and monarchs where the horse was the fastest thing on earth, Turner lived to see the coming of trains, steamships, political reform and photography – and the abolition of the slave trade.

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