Turner, in his element

Half the shops along the freshly painted promenade are boarded up; of those in business – a Wimpy Bar, a candy-pink ice-cream parlour, a joke shop (“Open Every Day. This is Not a Joke”) – all are shut except Primark, a concrete interloper in the Georgian/Victorian façade, and the Dreamland amusement arcade. From here, through a film of steady rain, you survey a stormy sea and, at once solid-looking yet ethereal beneath swirling grey clouds, the glass-fronted white sheds of Turner Contemporary.

This is Margate in January, nine months after the opening of David Chipperfield’s £17m museum on the exact site of Mrs Booth’s boarding house, where J.M.W. Turner painted during visits over many years to his landlady/lover.

Will Turner look different in Margate? Is Margate transformed by Turner? The first season of exhibitions here was feeble. But Saturday sees the opening of Turner and the Elements, a display of some 80 watercolours and a dozen oil paintings, and it is perfectly pitched – offering both enjoyable, high-end cultural tourism and a vibrantly relevant local show.

Turner told Ruskin that “the skies over Thanet are the loveliest in all Europe”, and his great lifelong theme, the movement of light on water, can find no more resonant setting than this gallery suffused with natural daylight and wide vistas of sea and sky. Maritime subjects – Turner’s best – and the prevalence of watercolours give a particular luminosity and lightness of being. Fragile and rarely displayed, the works on paper are graciously installed to allow each to breathe within its own space, from the sparest – a dark/white contrast of reductive but energetic marks titled “Waves”, part of a sketchbook of an 1844 German tour – to exquisitely detailed compositions such as “Venice: Shipping off the Riva degli Schiavoni”, a view from the Arsenale of the emerald water and fragments of buildings around St Marks dissolving into a golden haze.

Rightly prominent is an array of depictions of Margate and its shores. Translucent watercolour studies of clouds at sunrise and sunset – “Margate”, “A Stormy Sunset”, “Storm on Margate Sands”, the red-azure-grey harmony “Study of Clouds” – hang alongside the magisterial canvases “Margate from the Sea” and “Yacht Approaching the Coast”, executed in thickly applied paint and broad gestures. Ruskin reckoned that Turner, impatient with Margate’s “inadequacy”, exaggerated its charms to a point of insincerity, but that is not evident here. Rather, a story beyond the merely provincial tells itself: Turner transferring the lessons of watercolour to oils, lightening his palette, eventually painting light itself.

Misunderstood for a century, such near-abstract works – Hazlitt’s “picture of nothing, and very like” – are now among Turner’s most popular. But there are engaging anecdotal pieces here too: for example, “The New Moon, or I’ve Lost My Boat, You Shan’t Have Your Hoop”, a glowing oil-on-mahogany depiction of disputing children and dogs on Margate’s golden sands as the sun goes down and a crescent moon appears. This is the show’s poster image and catalogue cover, and the choice embodies a resolutely non-intellectual approach: refreshing, informal and contrary to recent metropolitan interpretations.

London’s last two Turner exhibitions, Tate’s Turner Whistler Monet (2005) and Turner and the Masters (2009) (which, significantly, were both collaborations with Paris) centred on Turner’s place in the canon, especially his relationship with classicism. The National Gallery’s forthcoming Turner in the Light of Claude does the same. Turner and the Elements, however, places Turner alone: an artist set not in history but a painter of the world around him, seeking to experience, observe and record intense, elemental conditions, for whom “every look at nature is a refinement upon art”.

Thus the claustrophobic cavernous “A Mountain Pass” is menacing rather than a picturesque Alpine view. The force of waves beneath the globe of white light in “The Evening of the Deluge” pulls you into an imaginative rendering of the biblical flood. The muted, cool tonalities of “Fishing Boats bringing a Disabled Ship into Port Ruysdael” – “absolute perfection – the best grey sea piece ever painted by man”, according to Ruskin – gives the feel of the icy sea, thundering wind, the sense of desolation as the lighthouse vanishes into fog.

Looping, swaying lines create the dizzying vortex in the show’s highlight, “Snow Storm – Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth Making Signals in Shallow Water, and Going by the Lead”. It carries the inscription “the author was in this Storm on the Night the Ariel left Harwich” – but when the painting was praised, Turner snapped: “I did not paint it to be understood, but I wished to show what such a scene was like; I got the sailors to lash me to the mast to observe it; I was lashed for four hours, and I did not expect to escape, but I felt bound to record it if I did”.

'Storm at Sea' (c 1829)

Margate organised this show in collaboration with museums in Germany and Poland – this is the final leg of its European tour. The result is a selection that emphasises Turner as a northern visionary – sometimes almost Gothic in the spiralling, eddying marks that seem to anticipate Van Gogh. The whirlpool form appears early in his body of work – it is already there in the fiery “The Hero of a Hundred Fights” (1800-10) – but becomes more frequent from the 1830s, dominating marvellous, sparse, pessimistic watercolours such as “Figures in a Storm”, a hunched pair caught in a dense maelstrom fading from black to grey, and in “Surge of Sea in a Storm (Perhaps Related to the Lost Sailor)”. “He was without hope,” Ruskin summed up at the end of Modern Painters. In the recurring image of the vortex, Turner expressed that hopelessness, of man doomed to a senseless cycle of life and death, sucked to his fate.

None of this is groundbreaking in terms of Turner scholarship. It must also be said that the show, though pleasurable, is based on a silly curatorial idea: to arrange the works according to the four elements of earth (mountains), air (mostly pieces celebrating the light of Italy), water and fire. A fifth section, “Fusion”, is the best because it departs from these categories. With their airy diaphanous veils of light and sparkling reflections, almost all Turner’s works are of course “fusions” – and since it is hard to think of a single Turner that does not depict the elements, the premise for the show is meaningless because it is all-inclusive.

It is also unimportant: clearly, what is on display here is the best that Margate could borrow – not the iconic Rigis or “Norham Castle” or “Rain, Steam and Speed”, but more than enough masterpieces to give Turner Contemporary for the first time a show worthy of its name.

‘Turner and the Elements’, Turner Contemporary, Margate, from today to May 13, www.turnercontemporary.org

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