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Major Turner retrospective in Zurich

Turner's depiction of an avalanche in the Graubünden, 1810. Kunsthaus Zurich/Tate

Zurich is hosting the biggest exhibition of works by the English artist William Turner to be seen on the European continent for two decades.

It covers the whole of Turner’s long career as a painter, and includes many of his most famous paintings.

William Turner, often called the “painter of light”, was born in London in 1775, and continued painting until shortly before his death in 1851. This comprehensive retrospective in Zurich’s fine arts museum, the Kunsthaus, features nearly 200 of his works, many of them rarely seen in public.

Andrew Wilton, a leading Turner scholar and a research fellow with Tate London, told swissinfo: “The Tate is always lending its Turners around the world but this is an unusually large collection of works and I doubt whether many of them have been seen in Switzerland before.

“The exhibition also includes loans from other collections and some paintings from US museums haven’t been seen in Europe for over a century.”

Vulnerable paintings

The rarity of Turner exhibitions is to a great extent due to the vulnerability of the paintings. Watercolours are sensitive to light, while the oil paintings are fragile and at risk from vibrations when transported by air.

Many of the artist’s most famous paintings are included in the retrospective. For example, there’s his dramatic depiction of Hannibal crossing the Alps with his army in a snowstorm. Another, also inspired by a visit to Switzerland, is a vivid picture of the Rhein falls near Schaffhausen.

The range of the exhibition is astonishing – from the early watercolour landscapes through to the later oils which made Turner a precursor of modern painting. It’s interesting to contrast the intimacy of the watercolours with the monumental scale of some of the oils.

Turner was an innovator in his use of light and colour to the extent that he was condescendingly dismissed and even ridiculed by many of his contemporaries. Undeterred, he just went on painting.

“He was very much a product of his times,” says Wilton. “The good British painters of that period were part of the culture of the industrial revolution, when technical and technological advance and experimentation were in the air. You might say it was in their blood.”

Wilton said the British painters were almost bound to be highly original, and their work was the most original in late 18th and early 19th century Europe.

The exhibition is at the Zurich Kunsthaus until May 26.

by Richard Dawson

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR