Postcards from abroad

Art - William Cook discovers that Turner is prized in Germany

It is 150 years since the death of Britain's greatest artist, yet the most extensive commemoration of this anniversary is not in his native Britain, but in Germany. "William Turner: Licht und Farbe" ("light and colour") is the first comprehensive exhibition of Turner's work ever mounted in Germany, a country where familiarity with the founder of modern art has always been surprisingly scant. This conspicuous absence is especially remarkable given that Turner made seven major journeys through Germany, and painted the Rhine and Mosel rivers extensively on his travels.

Turner's relative anonymity abroad is mainly of his own making. With a sharp eye on his posthumous reputation, Turner left 19,000 works to the nation; although this shrewd but generous bequest cemented his domestic status as Britain's most important painter, there weren't a lot of Turners left over for anyone else. Ever since, foreign galleries have struggled to find Turners on the open market.

This major retrospective, at Essen's smart, modern Folkwang Museum, redresses the imbalance by establishing a fresh reputation for Turner, not just as the father of English impressionism, but as a pivotal figure in the development of European art. More than 200 works, gathered together from around the world, show Germans what visitors to the Tate have always known - that Turner, as Ben Jonson once said of Shakespeare, is not just of his age, but for all time.

Ruskin likened Turner to Shakespeare, and the comparison would have pleased the painter, who claimed to share his birthday with the Bard. Yet Turner's claim that he was born in the same year as Napoleon, even though he was actually six years younger, suggests that his ambitions for posterity were more pan-European. Like both Shakespeare and Napoleon, his beginnings were humble. A barber's son, Turner was born in 1775 (not 1769 as he claimed) in Covent Garden, in the days when the area was still an inner-city slum. And yet, like Shakespeare, Turner's art was revolutionary. "He opened the door to the future," says the Folkwang Museum's director, Dr Georg Koltzsch.

Around half of these pictures are from the Tate, but the rest are from as far afield as America and Australia, and private collections throughout Europe. There's a view of Harlech on loan from Yale and a Northumberland landscape from Adelaide, and the House of Commons in flames has come all the way from Philadelphia. Yet as well as brand-new views of Britain, this stunning display gives Germans a first glimpse of Turner's portraits of their fatherland. There are Rhineland scenes from New York, Boston, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Seattle, as well as London and Cardiff, plus a Heidelberg panorama from an English private collector.

Nowadays, Turner's German studies are highly prized, but they weren't always so well received while he was alive. He went to Coburg to paint Schloss Rosenau, the birthplace of Queen Victoria's beloved husband, Albert, but when Victoria visited the Royal Academy, where the tribute was hung, she never even noticed it. Turner's attempts to woo the German market were even less successful. The Opening of the Walhalla, painted to mark the completion of Germany's Parthenon-style Temple of Fame, was derided when Turner sent it to the Congress of European Art in Munich in 1845. Turner even had to pay to have his painting returned to Britain, where it now hangs in the Clore Gallery.

Germany's reaction to Turner today is certainly a dramatic contrast. More than 35,000 visitors have flocked to the exhibition in the first few weeks, and critics have been excited by his modernity and his close relationship with Continental Europe. "Knowledge of English art is very rare on the Continent," says Koltzsch. "Turner will be rediscovered now for Germany with this exhibition." The assistant curator, Helena Robinson, agrees: "He's never really been appreciated or considered within the wider context of European art. For the first time, people in Germany, which is one of the places where he travelled most extensively, especially in this area, are getting to see the result of his travels."

The exhibition has attracted a great deal of media attention, and not just in Germany. But it seems that mine was the first visit from a representative of the stubbornly insular British press - which is a pity, as there may not be many more chances to see such a large collection of Turners assembled under one roof. Turner's working methods were as unorthodox as his results, and his experimental approach meant that he often used unstable materials. Even in Turner's lifetime, collectors complained that his paintings were starting to slide off the canvas. "A lot are in a miserable condition," says Koltzsch. "That's the problem with Turner, and so I believe an exhibition like this will be very rare in future."

Yet, for the time being at least, Essen's temporary Turners are as mesmeric as ever, and the Folkwang's permanent collection is equally arresting, with beautiful pictures by Turner's impressionist inheritors such as Monet, Sisley and Pissarro. But for British visitors, the biggest shock is the wealth of wonderful yet woefully unfamiliar work by Germans - for example, Emil Nolde, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Max Beckmann. Germans may not know much about Turner, but when it comes to comparable German greats, such as Max Ernst, Otto Dix or Caspar David Friedrich, the British know even less.

"William Turner: Licht und Farbe" is at the Folkwang Museum, Essen, to 6 January 2002 (00 49 201 884 5311 or www.museum-folkwang.de). For further information, call the German National Tourist Office on 020 7317 0908

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A plan for the world