JMW Turner, Colour Trails from the Bristol and Malmesbury Sketchbook 1791
JMW Turner
Colour Trials from the Bristol and Malmesbury Sketchbook 1791
Watercolour on paper, 185 x 263 mm
Photograph
© Tate Photography

In celebration of the reopening of Tate Britain, Tate Etc. invited a selection of artists from around the world to choose a favoured work from a fellow artist currently on display. Here, artists Shirana Shahbazi and Raphael Montanez Ortiz discuss J.M.W. Turner’s Colour Trials sketches

Shirana Shahbazi

Lying in the hot bathtub, I look at the white ceiling and stop thinking. For a bit. After a while some of my black curls start swimming in the water, and I pass the time observing them. The longer I watch, the more perfect their random shape seems to be – tight curves interchanged with straight lines. Waves combined with small circles. They are shaped from within, and each curl looks as if it has to be exactly the way it is and not any different from that. So they float and dance in the water quietly, changing their path suddenly, apparently ignoring any kind of rules.

Turner’s Colour Trials have a similar fascinatingly untroubled and easy charisma. They seem to be free from the pressure to be something other than just themselves. They don’t depict any thoughts other than those on the shades of colours. They show the drive and a certain speed of the paint brush and time. They are free from any kind of calculation and don’t need to communicate. And exactly because of this, they appear so beautifully candid to me, as I lose myself in my own thoughts while observing them. The strength of these pieces comes from their certitude at not having to be observed, not having to represent a gesture or an attitude. This is the type of lightness that I seek for, in combination with control and clarity, in my work, and which seems to be so difficult to achieve.

Raphael Montañez Ortiz

I started out as an Expressionist painter using tempera before I turned to oils. Turner was always an influence. But having said that, it was his perceptually primitive aesthetic that fascinated me and resonated with my existential journey as an artist. The story, however true or not, of his being tied to the mast of a ship to be in the midst of a violent storm while painting it, speaks of his pursuit of the visceral emotional experience, and through his painting its concretisation. His was the vision of the prophet revealing the spirit that lay hiding from normal perception. Like the epileptic who sees the spiritual glow in everything; like the Aztec shaman who sees the god of destruction in the fire of the setting sun and the setting sun in everything that speaks of fire.

But there is more to this than meets the eye. There is the fear that forces one to return to reality from the free fall of release to the imperfect spiritual state of other-worldliness that creates and embraces a god confined to human imperfection, that envisions the fire of the sun in a burning heaven, as in Turner’s Sun Setting over a Lake c.1840, and the fiery sky of a burning hell, as in The Burning of the Houses of Parliament 1834 and The Slave Ship exhibited 1840. Turner’s paintings represent the first stages of his return to the cold world of overcoming his fear of the fire. Ships in danger of capsizing in the churning oceans in Fishermen upon a Lee-Shore, in Squally Weather exhibited 1802, Snow Storm – Steam Boat Off a Harbour’s Mouth making Signals in Shallow Water exhibited 1842 and Calais Pier 1803 finally reach harbour in Dido building Carthage 1815. We experience Turner safe on land in The Seat of William Moffatt Esq., at Mortlake. Early (Summer’s) Morning exhibited 1826 and Rome, from the Vatican. Raffaelle, Accompanied by La Fornarina, Preparing his Pictures for the Decoration of the Loggia exhibited 1820. The spiritual vision of a flaming sky is absent. He has returned to normalcy. Only to have it all begin again with his painting Moonlight, a Study at Millbank exhibited 1797 signifying the time for sleep, entrancement and the fiery dream.

The Colour Trials from various Turner sketchbooks were accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest in 1856.

Shirana Shahbazi (born 1974) lives in Zurich. Works from her MIR series were acquired by Tate in 2007.

Raphael Montañez Ortiz (born 1934) lives and works in New York City and is founder of El Museo del Barrio, New York.