Of the half-dozen major museum shows devoted to JMW Turner since 2010, Tate Britain’s gorgeous new Late Turner – Painting Set Free is the most engaging and revelatory. Late style is currently so fashionable – Matisse’s last Cut Outs has just closed at Tate Modern, Rembrandt’s final works open at the National Gallery next month – that the subject is almost clichéd but if the idea of lateness enhances our understanding of any artist, that artist is Turner.

It is not only that the paintings he made in his sixties and seventies epitomise the recklessness, extravagance, tendency to abstraction, and tragic grandeur that we have come to associate with old-age style from Titian to Twombly. Masterpieces at Tate that are textbook examples of this style include “Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth” – nature reduced to a furious black swirling vortex, an abstraction that, Kenneth Clark said, “would have been rejected by any hanging committee of the Royal Academy up to 1940” – and “Norham Castle, Sunrise”, where landscape and buildings blend in a blur of white dawn light beneath a film of opalescent colour. Such extreme turbulent or transcendent effects are dared only by a painter of such technical assurance that he can break all rules as he confronts mortality and challenges his own past achievements.

Often late works seem to herald future sensibilities: to our era, conditioned by abstraction, the Turners that speak most directly are the improvisatory “pictures of nothing – and very like”, as William Hazlitt criticised them, which were mocked during Turner’s lifetime. Among stunners at Tate are those so undefined that we must guess their subjects: canvases worked up with transparent layers of delicate glazes merged with patches of impasto, airy blue and buttery yellow tonalities, deepening to russet in “Landscape with River and Distant Mountains”, or pale and hazy in “Sunrise, with a Boat between Headlands”, which curator David Blayney Brown suggests may depict a Swiss lake, or Dido’s Carthage, or any image “passing into memory”.

For Turner’s late works are the apotheosis of an oeuvre always rooted in a search for lost time, culture in decline, ruins, romantic concepts of belatedness. This show is a sequel to Tate’s Turner and the Masters (2009-10), which explored how the young Turner grasped towards the order and authority embodied by classical painters Claude and Poussin. But from around 1835, when he turned 60, Turner set himself free and, while retaining the rigour derived from his disciplined study of the past, played loose and fast with traditional composition, and began the radical liberation of colour from subject and form, which links romantic to modern painting.

With its Greek subject and towering architecture, “The Parting of Hero and Leander” still evokes classical models. However, bizarre perspectives, unfathomable shadows, the odd conjunction of moonlight and sunrise, a colouring shifting from rose to gold to white to silver to storm-blue, all contribute to a mood of instability and heightened emotion that led the great poetic drama to be ridiculed as “a dream of sick genius” when exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1837.

After it, popular pictures by Turner were rare. The most beloved, “The Fighting Temeraire” (1839), is inexplicably excluded, although no British painting more triumphantly treats the subject of mutability and decay that courses through late Turner, and through Victorian England. Five years later came “Rain, Steam and Speed – the Great Western Railway”, which perfectly distils the thrill and terror of the new technology by means of fresh, free, atmospheric painting. The train’s plunging diagonal slices through the old pastoral world of the Thames Valley in rain, Thackeray marvelled, “composed of dabs of dirty putty slapped on to the canvas with a trowel; the sunshine scintillates out of very thick, smeary lumps of chrome yellow …although the fire in the steam-engine looks as if it were red I am not prepared to say that it is not painted with cobalt and pea-green. The world has never seen anything like this picture.”

Turner, in this varied show, is at once romantic chronicler of industrialisation and fugitive from it, retreating into an inner life of abstract phenomena and myth. A gallery devoted to his innovative square format pictures, produced after 1840 and shown together for the first time now, demonstrates his dramatic compression of the vortex form to muse on natural phenomena and perception, as in the pairing of dark and light in “Shade and Darkness – The Evening of the Deluge”, “Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – The Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis”, “The Angel Standing in the Sun” and again in the nocturne “Undine Giving the Ring to Massaniello, Fisherman of Naples”.

Even Ruskin, Turner’s fervent advocate, dismissed these as “indicative of mental disease”, and certainly most of this apocalyptic series is uneasy, uneven, over-theoretical, with clumsy figures. The stark, sublime “Peace, Burial at Sea”, with fiery reflections in the calm water, is the signal exception, though its pendant, Napoleon before a garish sunset in “War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet”, is surely Turner’s most unfortunate, absurd creation.

“He was without hope,” Ruskin concluded; the repeated whirlpool, suggestive of man sucked helplessly to his destiny, assumes Turner’s pessimism. But another thematic gallery here, dedicated to his late Venetian pictures, speaks of visionary joy. It demonstrates particularly how the melting luminous effects of wet-on-wet watercolour, allowing paint to diffuse and outlines soften, was the perfect medium for delineating the watery city – the expanse of lagoon with Venice a vanishing silhouette in “The Zitelle, Santa Maria della Salute, the Campanile and San Giorgio Maggiore”, for example. The display also shows how Turner learnt through mastery of watercolour to paint in oil in a lighter key.

“The Dogana, San Giorgio, Citella, From the Steps of the Europa”, painted from Turner’s hotel, balances an easily recognisable depiction and classical composition with a brilliant vaporous glow, and became the first Turner to enter the National Gallery, in 1847. Unsold, on the other hand, was “St Benedetto, Looking towards Fusina”, a rapturous imaginary composition where buildings lining the waterside appear as a sort of mirage beneath sunburst dazzles of white and yellow pigment. “Without one single accurate detail,” Ruskin said, this was “the likest thing to what it is meant for …of all that I have ever seen.”

That truth of feeling about Venice’s tremulous beauty made the city irresistible, after Turner, as motif and metaphor for the poignancy of old-age creativity: Monet, Sargent, Thomas Mann, Henry James. Edward Lear commented about Turner’s effervescent late works that many people saw “the wreck of a great mind”; in fact, they represented “the glorious setting of a glorious sun”.

‘Late Turner – Painting Set Free’, Tate Britain, London, to January 25 2015, tate.org.uk; J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, February 24-May 24 2015, getty.edu/museum; de Young Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, June 20-September 20 2015, deyoung.famsf.org

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