Travelling light: Turner and Italy

TURNER AND ITALYNational Gallery Complex, Edinburgh

IT WAS, joked National Gallery of Scotland deputy director Christopher Baker this week, a case of Scotland 6, Italy 7. But my goodness, what a decisive victory for the latter. That greatest of English painters Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) made it north of the border six times and across the treacherous Alps seven, but those seven trips framed his life and career.

After the gallery's grimly self-conscious attempt to trace links between Scotland and Impressionism, and the haunting memory of its oddly misjudged perspective on Landseer, it's something of a relief that the latest crowd-pleasing show on The Mound avoids too much local colour and turns straightforwardly to great art and sunnier climes. So why Turner and Italy when the artist's astounding perspectives on Venice have been so well rehearsed? Well, several reasons: it's an excellent way to plot a narrative through a crowded output, but above all it highlights an essential Turner paradox – his simultaneous embrace of cultural tradition and his flouting of every rule in the book.

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It unashamedly shows Turner's weak spots (the human figure) but showcases his heart-stopping strengths (just about everything else). And it's also a chance, after all the activity over the Bridgewater loan, to contextualise and anchor another couple of great loans to the gallery from another collection, the two "Rosebery Turners", although this is never overtly stated. Both are on Italian subjects, both – unusually unvarnished and unlined – give an intimate sense of his techniques, and both are beautifully described in a rhapsodic catalogue essay by the gallery's keeper of conservation Jacqueline Ridge.

Turner's first actual visit to Italy was swift and opportunistic; it was possible to hop across the Channel in 1802 during the brief interlude in hostilities after the Peace of Amiens. Turner travelled to Paris, studied the collections at the Louvre and then, far more ambitious than his fellow travellers, he travelled south and squeezed through the treacherous Alpine passes to Aosta, an Italian city dominated by Roman ruins. The journey was what Turner scholar and guest curator James Hamilton calls a "necessary filter" for travellers. In other words, it quickly sorted the sheep from the goats. Twice, on the seven trips he made throughout his career, Turner was thrown from a coach that overturned in heavy snow. And time after time, Italy itself turned out to be a beguiling mix of beauty and banditry. The shows makes much play of the practicalities of travel, the dagger/umbrella combo with which the artist regularly armed himself, the lost luggage, the shifting political situations and the social whirl.

Woven through this is the tale of a young man on the make, the son of a Covent Garden barber, who made his mark and his fortune whilst never having the right accent, attitude to authority, clothes or lifestyle.

Alongside the showstoppers for public exhibition there are the building blocks of his output and the raw materials: delightful sketches, the notebooks and highlights of the vast library of travel guides, poetry and prose that shaped his vision of Italy.

The lived life is there too, albeit in sublimated form. Early on, his rather creaky Holy Family may be a tribute to Titian but it is also a token for his unacknowledged mistress and the first of his two illegitimate daughters. Years later, in 1840, we see the rumpled bedclothes of the Hotel Europa in Venice bearing, we're told, the unmistakable suggestion of female company.

There are other tales here too, the journey through challenging physical forms which he explored before he finally opted for the vaporous omniscience of light and moisture which came to define him in modern eyes. En route to this hazy nirvana there is a lot of spouting, whether it is lava, or the curious mixture of water and frolicking bodies in the bravura Fountain Of Indolence of 1834. Then there are the extraordinary spheres in his Vision Of Medea, floating bubbles inhabited by unearthly figures. We can trace the way billowing clouds grow over the years to full-blown storms as small eddies become vortices. Romantic grandeur, physical transformation and impending peril forever lurk close by.

Above all this is the story of Turner's journey into light – the yellow that so infuriated his critics, the blinding whites and blues of Venice, the spiritual lights of Christianity and fiery glow of paganism which are ever present in the Italian story.

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In the final two rooms of the show we are really reminded of why Turner is unrivalled. In his Venice pictures he articulates the final dissolution of coherence in the near whiteout of his views of the Salute. In the extraordinary Approach To Venice, on loan from Washington, it is as though the painting is becoming something else entirely, and the green that creeps across the scene of boats at sunset appears to be the green algal bloom which coats the city itself.

It's this Turner who haunts us still, with his almost complete collapse of conventional sense of time and place. He was a man shaped by the culture of the 18th century, who witnessed the scientific and technological revolutions of the 19th and oddly anticipated the artistic ruptures of the 20th. In his late years, working once more in relative isolation, he returned full circle to the scene of Aosta, although by now the scenery itself has almost vanished. In the final painting of the show, on loan from Melbourne, Italy has become more memory or premonition than physical matter, but the paint itself has a presence as forceful and as immediate as something newly minted. v

Until June 7