Exhibition: Turner and the Tradition of the Sublime

It is not often, that I discourage people from visiting museums, art galleries, exhibitions. However: if you’re not that much into (modern) art, no devotee of Turner, your time in the Netherlands is limited … any other decent excuse: skip this exhibition. There are far more interesting and important ones taking place in the Netherlands right now.

While spending a weekend in the Netherlands, my friends and I were lured to “Turner and the Tradition of the Sublime”. It was partly our literary and art backgrounds and memories of the recent Turner film. (See: Mr Turner.) So we trained it to Museum The Foundation (Museum de Fundatie) in Zwolle, despite the town being not that close to Amsterdam, Utrecht, Rotterdam.

Zwolle itself is interesting enough. During the Middle Ages, it was a member of the Hanseatic League. If you insist on visiting the museum, please also take time for a walk through the old town-centre. A few buildings still show the architectural influences from as far away as Lübeck. There are its impressive gate and other historic buildings. It is the town where Thomas a Kempis worked and died. A leaflet with a Thomas á Kempis walk can be bought at the museum shop.

Depending on the route you take from Zwolle’s central train station (follow green signs directing you to “Centrum”), you will see the museum soon enough. It is situated on the edge of the old town centre, close to a former moat. Cross the bridge and follow the signs to the entrance of this large, yellowish neo-classical building – with futuristic turkey-egg sprouting out of its roof.

Until the end of November, the museum also hosts exhibitions on Barbara Klemm and Ellen Auerbach. Till early January, there is some exhibition on Dutch artists. We skipped them all and headed for the Turners on the museum’s first floor.

This exhibition is a co-production with the Tate Britain, London and another museum: the Rijksmuseum Twenthe in Enschede. Half the Turner exhibition can be visited in Zwolle. You need to travel to Enschede for the other half. In the case of the exhibition of portraits by Alexander Roslin, I found travelling to Enschede well worth a long train journey.

“Turner and the Tradition of the Sublime” is organised around the four elements. This facilitates the split of the exhibition between the two Dutch museums. In Enschede the works about earth and air can be admired. In Zwolle, the works concerning water and fire are shown.

However: what is dished out to you is not a one-hundred-percent Turner exhibition! The museum(s) saw fit to combine a tiny selection of his works with what they deem to be “predecessors” and especially “inheritors”. Among the latter are – according to the Fundatie – Eyal Gever with his sculpture “Waterfall” and other modern art. For each Turner, there are at least two or three modern pieces which are often not even remotely related to the Romanticist Turner, or the Sublime.

Haarlem from Spaarne, Turner, Tate Gallery

In a few rooms, photo-copies of sketches, watercolours, or a painting by Turner are combined with works of predecessors – no longer well-known. With their works hanging next to a Turner, one realizes only too well why. Moreover, as with the modern works on display, the link between Turner and a few predecessors is occasionally obscure – perhaps non-existing.

What saved our visit were a painting of a fishing boat by a predecessor hanging opposite a work by Turner with a similar vessel sailing on the Spaarne with Haarlem in the distance. At least here, some kind of influence could be established. A few sketches and two small sketch books which Turner used visits to the Netherlands were interesting as well.

Caspar David Friedrich 2Two or three water colours by Turner, capturing the fires at the Houses of Parliament and the Storehouse of the Tower are impressive, as are his larger canvasses of stormy seascapes. There is also his painting of shell-seekers on a Calais beach. The light simply splashes off this painting and contrasts nicely with the moody “Segelschiff” by one of Turner’s contemporaries, Caspar David Friedrich.

Yet, after barely an hour, we left – not bothering with any of the other exhibitions. This one so deeply disappointed us. If only it had really concentrated on “Turner and the Sublime” – that would and should have been enough. It would even have enticed us to travel all the way to Enschede, if the selected works by Turner were not enough to fill one museum’s exhibition space.

Turner, Calais beach

Had we known in advance, the exhibition title did not cover its content and this exhibition being split between two museums in different towns – we would never have fallen into this money-grabbing set-up. After visiting 50% of this “Turner and the Tradition of the Sublime” ado, we simply won’t bother visiting the other 50%. After all: a visit to the Tate in London shows his great works, covers influences, is far more agreeable – as well as totally satisfying.

“Turner and the Tradition of the Sublime” can be visited till the 3rd of January 2016, with the themes water and fire at the Museum De Fundatie, Zwolle. The themes earth and air are on show at the Rijksmuseum Twenthe, in Enschede

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