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By Phil Hall | July 5, 2008

Carroll Moore’s documentary focuses on the extraordinary art of J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), arguably the greatest British painter who ever lived. The film was created to coincide with a Turner exhibition staged by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. For those who are unable to experience the brilliance of Turner’s art up close in a museum, this is an excellent alternative to appreciating the master’s brilliance.

As narrated by Jeremy Irons, the documentary takes pains to separate the artist from the glory of his work. The son of a London barber, Turner never lost his working class accent or gruff manners despite enjoying a class-breaking elevation to the heights of aristocracy. In his stubborn focus on landscape paintings, Turner bucked the artistic tradition that deemed landscape work to be the least significant form of painting. In his refusal to kowtow to critical sneering, he forged the reputation of a leader who set new rules for creative expression.

However, there is far more concentration here on the art rather than its creator, which is perfectly fine. Nearly 80 paintings are presented here in chronological order, which helps to show Turner’s evolution as an artist from an academic traditionalist to a bold iconoclast. Of particular fascination was his late-life exploration of abstract imagery, where sunlight and fog blend into striking and often disturbing slices of color. The film suggests Turner was the forerunner of the Impressionists with his daring revolt against classical style.

Turner enjoyed the rare privilege of being able to travel extensively across Britain and through Switzerland and Italy, where he absorbed the majesty and enigma of the various landscapes. The film provides video footage of where Turner traveled, juxtaposing the haunting ruins of Tintern Abbey and the kaleidoscopic frenzy of Venice against Turner’s oil and watercolor depictions. In many ways, it is easy to prefer Turner’s vision of the world rather than the real thing.

Anyone with a passion for art history in general and Turner’s work in particular will benefit from this handsome, compelling and truly inspiring video tribute.

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