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When an exhibit tells us something we didn’t know

This is a dream show for forgetting all the jillion stories written about painting and just looking. “Making Painting: Helen Frankenthaler and JMW Turner” at Margate, East Kent, England writes its own story.

Helen Frankenthaler's  “Mountains and Sea.”
National Gallery in D.C.

It’s a story about two disparate artists, 19th century English Romantic painter JMW Turner and 20th century American Abstract Expressionist Helen Frankenthaler. And as this show demonstrates, their art, made from dissimilar times and isms, are alike in form, color, perception and even use of paint.

Odd this was never noticed before because these artists are so well known. Even if you just envision the work of each in your mind’s eye, you will recognize the historical inevitability of this show.

All credit goes to Turner scholar and exhibit curator James Hamilton, who writes, “This exhibition encourages us all to rely not on what we might know but on what we can see, and as far as possible to throw off the burden of art history…These two artists could only have met and talked in our imaginations: so bringing their work together takes imagination just one small step further towards reality and allows us to examine values common to both.”

To that point, Frankenthaler’s abstract expressionist paintings never bore the regulation thick, dense brushwork of Pollock and Kline. Hers were transparent, vaporous, sometimes downright insubstantial – but oh, so gorgeous that you want to enter her pictures and drift in their ethereal air. Exemplifying the soft, atmospheric colors, their lyricism, the gauziness is a work held in the National Gallery in D.C. called “Mountains and Sea.”

And the still air in Turner’s landscape is so self-evident that you imagine feeling the very moisture in the air. Even his colleague John Constable, who was big on strong dark and light and famously said, “I was always determined that my pictures should have chiaroscuro, if they had nothing else,” appreciated Turner’s lack of strong contrast: “He seemed to paint with tinted steam, so evanescent and so airy.”

Nineteenth British art critic John Ruskin extolled Turner’s work for its “truth to nature,” even believing that Turner was better than the Old Masters at capturing the natural world. One wonders what Ruskin would have said of Frankenthaler’s work had he ever seen it.

Kudos to James Hamilton for mounting a show that tells us something we didn’t know.

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