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Works by 'painter of light' find landfall in Australia

TURNER lashed to a ship's mast witnessing a mighty storm is one of art's enduring and epic tales.

Legend has it the artist conceived his masterpiece Snowstorm amid the swirling chaos of snow and sea - a genius suffering for his art. However, art curator Jane Messenger sets us straight.

''It didn't actually happen - but it goes to the myth of the artist and his passion, in capturing the fierce energies and the wrath of nature.''

With his grand romantic vision, Joseph Mallord William Turner revolutionised 19th century British art. He is quintessentially British, and London's Tate Gallery is synonymous with Turner's legacy.

A major exhibition in Adelaide opening in February, Turner from the Tate: The Making of a Master at the Art Gallery of South Australia, reveals there's much more to the Turner myth than snowstorms and Britain's maritime might. (We won't see the monumental The Fighting Temeraire or The Slave Ship in Adelaide - these belong to other collections.) The exhibition will also travel to the National Gallery of Australia, where it will be one of the highlights of Canberra's centenary celebrations.

Messenger, co-curator of the Adelaide show and curator of European and North American art at the Art Gallery of South Australia, says Turner went to great lengths to create a complete picture of his work. Wealthy and successful towards the end of his life, he bought back paintings from patrons or refused to part with them, leaving them to the nation.


''He was very strategic as an artist. From very early on he was conscious of constructing his identity in the public realm, and how he would be written into history.''

Given the value of the bequest, London's Tate Gallery is revered as the custodian of Turner's work and it also shapes the narrative of his life. We have had the legend - Adelaide's exhibition charts him in full.

''What distinguishes this show is that it's only through the Turner Bequest that this comprehensive story can be told, of his development from precocious young man to the visions of a dying old man,'' Messenger says. ''We return to his time and follow him as he paints and sketches his way through life.''

The Turner exhibition is a centrepiece of the Adelaide Festival. More than 100 oils, watercolours and sketches, some never before exhibited, will soon be on their way to the gallery, including Peace - Burial at Sea, with its bright flame slashing the dark shadows; and a favourite of Messenger's, The Fall of an Avalanche in the Grisons, in which the work of man - embodied in a tiny cottage - is threatened by the crushing forces of nature, snow plummeting and exploding in the landscape.

While Turner's style seems overly familiar - elemental, heroic sweeps of light and air - his subjects vary widely. Sea monsters haunt Turner's oceans and historical stories glow from the canvas. The exhibition will emphasise the breadth of a life's work, the arc from the tranquil to turbulent.

From the start a young and brilliant Turner, awarded a Royal Academy fellowship at 26, emerged with lyrical landscapes - described by art historian Simon Schama as places ''of almost narcotic serenity''. The Adelaide show has a large collection of Turner's later works

Turner from the Tate is in Adelaide from February 8 to May 19 and the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, from June 1 to September 8.