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Turner Was A Brute, But He Painted With Romantic Radiance


The list of well-known and loved French artists is long. Matisse, Renoir, Monet, to name just a few. The tally is shorter in Britain and often less familiar. There's Gainsborough, Constable, Reynolds and another that's now appearing on the big screen - Turner. A new film directed by Mike Leigh explores that 19th-century British painter and his shimmering sea and landscapes. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg reports on "Mr. Turner" the movie and the man.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: J.M.W. Turner is played by Timothy Spall. Mr. Spall, could you please grunt for us?

TIMOTHY SPALL: (Grunting).

STAMBERG: Spall's Turner grunts his way through the film. He grunts coming home to London from a painting trip.


SPALL: (As J.M.W. Turner) (Grunting).

STAMBERG: Getting older, his hair turning gray, Mr. Turner is still grunting.


SPALL: (As J.M.W. Turner) (Grunting).

STAMBERG: Yet this world-class grunter and occasional boar turned out paintings that were incandescent.

FRANKLIN KELLY: Its extraordinary flood of moonlight through the atmosphere.

STAMBERG: National Gallery of Art curator Franklin Kelly stands in front of Turner's 1835 work "Keelmen Heaving In Coals By Moonlight." It's a harbor scene, quintessential Turner. Dark barges and bright hits of torches, framing creamy moonlight that makes a shining path on the water.

KELLY: It's almost like wings of vapor filled with light.

STAMBERG: It's virtuoso painting.

KELLY: It's on that edge of seeming to flirt with dissolving before your eyes.

STAMBERG: It does. It's vaporizing.

KELLY: And that immediacy is really extraordinary.

STAMBERG: Turner's works are full of romantic light, but he could be brutish - grunting, snorting growling. Actor Timothy Spall discovered the inconsistencies through massive research - letters, biographies.

SPALL: Some people said he was kind. Some people said he was mean. Some said he was humorless. Some said he was jocular. Some said he was given to miserly behavior, others, to great acts of benevolence and kindness.

STAMBERG: What emerged, Spall says, was an incredibly contradictory personality. Spall's portrayal of the contradictions earned him the Best Actor award at Cannes. Tim Spall took painting lessons for the part.

SPALL: It was more to do with being familiar with the way he held a brush and how he held his palette, how he went about his every day work like a mechanic with a painting. It's not about somebody wearing a beret and a cape. It's about somebody who lived and was his work.

STAMBERG: In the film, Turner stabs the canvas with his brash, swoops and swishes the paint, wrestles with it sometimes. At the National Gallery, art historian Franklin Kelly says J.M.W. Turner was like an early action painter, an 1830s Jackson Pollock, ferocious sometimes.

KELLY: His energy's getting impressed into the canvas and the paint. And you see him in the film doing this. He's just sort of - he grunts, but he's going at the canvas sometimes just with this almost assault of his paint brushes then he - one moment he spits on the thing and then rubs that. And then another case he's blowing this brown powder onto the surface of the painting.

STAMBERG: J.M.W., it stands for Joseph Mallord William Turner, began studying at London's Royal Academy of Arts when he was just 14, quite a coup. The Royal Academy was the be-all and end-all of the British art world. It gave thumbs-up or thumbs-down judging an artist's worthiness. In "Mr. Turner" three academicians weigh in on an impoverished painter named Hayden longing for their recognition.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Gentlemen, are we as one?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Sadly, I cannot give him my support. He's not of our temper.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Alas the Academy does not have need of Hayden all so much as Hayden has a need of the Academy.

STAMBERG: Poor Hayden. J.M.W. Turner, on the other hand, showed his first oil painting at the Academy in 1796 when he was 21. Each year the Academy put on an exhibition of worthy work. Its large gallery walls were lined floor-to-ceiling with paintings. The film shows Varnishing Day at the Academy just before the annual show opened. Artists in top hats and tails squatting near their works or on ladders touching-up paint, applying varnish. Turner greets a few.


SPALL: (As J.M.W. Turner) Johnsy, Carlo, William - The Hanging Committee.

UNIDENTIFED ACTOR #4: (As character) You approve?

UNIDENTIFED ACTOR #5: (As character) Would everything be to your satisfaction, Mr. Turner?

SPALL: (As J.M.W. Turner) It is indeed, Mr. President. It's a splendid cornucopia.

STAMBERG: He goes over to his seascape hanging next to a work by another important artist of the day, John Constable. Constable has painted a new bridge in London. His canvas is full of reds stroked boldly on the riverbank, houses. Turner inspects the piece, grunts, strolls off, chats with various artists, glances at their works. Several artists have now gathered in front of Turner's canvas. He walks through the group, holding a brush loaded with bright red paint. He slams a red dab three-quarters down the canvas, just over a blue wave, and marches off.


UNIDENTIFED ACTOR #6: (As character) Why on Earth would he go and do that?

UNIDENTIFED ACTOR #7: (As character) Oh, I believe Mr. Turner knows well enough what he's doing.

ACTOR #6: (As character) You think so? He's ruined a masterpiece.

STAMBERG: Constable knows better.


UNIDENTIFED ACTOR #8: (As John Constable) He's been here and fired a gun.

STAMBERG: Constable walks out.


ACTOR #6: (As character) The man's impossible. I mean, why would he go and destroy a perfectly good painting?

UNIDENTIFED ACTOR #9: (As character) Sheer mockery.

STAMBERG: Mr. Turner returns, goes back to his canvas, puts his bare right forefinger onto the red blob, smushes it around, wipes away the bottom of the red dab with a rag.


SPALL: (As J.M.W. Turner) It's a buoy.

STAMBERG: The dab has become a buoy. Competitive, arrogant Mr. Turner marches through life backlit on film by glorious sunsets and sunrises. Wherever he goes he pauses, stares, then sketches in pursuit of light and its effects. He's called the painter of light. The young Monet studied him carefully.

Toward the end of his life - Turner died in 1851 at age 76 - a wealthy manufacturer offers 100,000 pounds for all his paintings. Turner refuses. This irascible, arrogant, complicated man has bequeathed his art to the British nation.


SPALL: (As J.M.W. Turner) I wish to see my work displayed in one place, all together, viewed by the public, gratis.

STAMBERG: Gratis - free of charge. And so they are - most of them. A number of Turners have found their way to this country. After Britain, the most J.M.W. Turner works are in American collections.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.