ART / Chaos is come again: Ambition can work against an artist, argues Andrew Graham-Dixon after looking at some of Turner's more modest works. The most successful works of art, he suggests, are often those that do not go out of their way to impress you

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AMBITIOUS paintings can be irritating in much the same way that ambitious people can be irritating: forever insinuating their own importance in ways that they hope are subtle but are actually overbearing. Ambition is insecurity with a sense of purpose; and insecurity always shows, in art as in life. Turner is generally regarded as the greatest British painter in history, and he was certainly one of the most ambitious. 'Turner: The Final Years', at the Tate Gallery, suggests that he may also have been the most insecure. The peculiarity of his art is often overlooked, and it is a peculiarity that stems entirely from insecurity - from the uneasy coexistence, within Turner, of a vision and an ambition that ran counter to one another.

The essence of Turner's vision is instability, ephemerality. He saw the fluctuant nature of things and he was a great painter of insubstantiality, a painter of the least solid phenomena: light, atmosphere, mists, vapours and sea-spray. He was, as Hazlitt said, the artist who painted 'pictures of nothing, and very like'. Hazlitt meant the remark damningly, but it is probably the best definition of Turner's genius, and the most succinct description of the radical quality of his art. Turner was great because he dared to paint pictures of nothing, of a world dissolved into light and colour - or at least he dared to, as the Tate exhibition shows, when his ambition did not get in the way.

Turner reinvented painting, using oil as if it were water-colour to create tremendous etherised voids: landscapes that are charged with a visionary sense, images of the world that propose chaos and entropy as the ruling principles of reality. But Turner also wanted to paint a different kind of painting, and to be a diferent kind of painter. His ambition (and his insecurity) told him that to be a great artist he had to create solid monuments to his own genius, grandiose paintings anchored in the Old Masterly traditions of grand narrative statement and high moral commentary. His ambition (and his insecurity) told him that to be a great painter he had to be less like himself and more like the great painters of the past.

Turner probably painted more failures than any other artist of equivalent stature in history. And he failed, consistently, when he was at his most ambitious, when he most desperately wanted to succeed. You could say that Turner spent the vast majority of his career sabotaging his own work: attempting to turn pictures that spoke so eloquently and profoundly about nothingness into something more like the conventional idea of Great Pictures that he had inherited from the past. There's hardly a major Turner in existence that he hasn't attempted to turn inappropriately into a Grand Moral Statement of one kind or another, that he hasn't given a classical theme (Dido Building Carthage or Regulus) or kitted out in historical fancy dress (The Field of Waterloo).

This is particularly true of Turner's largest works, where the fields of saturated colour he painted so brilliantly are constantly interrupted by irritating and ineptly painted little figures. The figures in Turner's art are meant to lend it a sense of consequence, to direct the viewer's attention to the narratives indicated by the titles of the works (Pilate Washing His Hands; Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego in the Fiery Furnace). But their true effect is to deflate and spoil, to undermine precisely what makes Turner's painting great. They are anchors of literary reference dropped into boiling seas of paint. They reveal Turner's nervous distrust of his own painterly vision.

Turner showed his insecurity, his nervous attitude to the fluid, mobile nature of his own painted world, in other ways too. Most notably on Varnishing Day at the Royal Academy, when painters whose works were to be hung in the RA's annual exhibition regularly put the finishing touches to their works. Turner turned Varnishing Day into a performance. He would submit a painting so daring that it was almost abstract, a blur of whirling colours and indistinct forms, and would proceed to turn it into a 'finished' picture: shapes and spaces would be clarified, the perspective would become more intelligible, figures would be added.

Turner's contemporaries compared the process to God's creation of the world out of chaos, but there is another way of looking at it. It was Turner's way, not of creating, but of destroying, a world - the world proposed by his own, radical genius. It was a world that could never be rescued from chaos since chaos was its very nature. He couldn't destroy it entirely, but the fact remains that he did, consistently, manage to turn it into something quite (but never entirely) like the worlds of older painters - the calm, lucid worlds of Claude or Poussin.

All of which leads to 'Late Turner', a small exhibition of modestly scaled watercolours in the temporary exhibition space that adjoins the main Turner galleries at the Tate. Turner's late water-colours are among the most remarkable pictures ever painted, and it is no coincidence that he should have been able to achieve them in this medium. Painting in water-colour, a minor genre, Turner was released from the burden of his own anxiety. As far as Turner was concerned, his reputation would never depend on such slight works. So he relaxed. He let himself be. He dropped all the distracting narrative paraphernalia, the misguided clarification and the moralising pomposity of his larger (and more ambitious) subject paintings. And he created his greatest art.

Turner's late water-colours offer a vision of the world before the advent of things, a place made out of pure light and atmosphere, whose essence is a kind of heavenly instability: sky and sea become abstract washes of colour; a mountain at sunset, pink as a prawn, looks more like an explosion than a solid object. They envisage the world not as an agglomeration of physical stuff, but as a process: they are pictures of flux, of a constant making and unmaking. They are as changeable as their subjects: light, weather, the sea.

Ruskin believed that these late water- colours were the artist's way of turning his sense of his own, imminent dissolution into imagery: 'His full, final, unshortened strength is in these, but put forth, as for the last time, in the presence of waiting Fate.' Perhaps he was right, and perhaps they are an old man's meditations on the ephemerality of all things. But it may also be true that these pictures are so great, because in them Turner forgot his own needy desire for greatness and was, simply, true to himself. Turner painted his finest works, not on canvases the size of walls, but on scraps of paper a few inches across. He found himself, by forgetting his ambition.

(Photographs omitted)