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 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

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Do you have to look like someone to play them in a film?

Physical resemblance between an actor and the real-life figure they are portraying is highly prized, but there’s much more to a successful biopic than the right face under a good wig.

The Program is a film in search of a hero. It never really finds one. On one hand it has the crusading journalist David Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd, who risks the derision of his colleagues and the scorn of the cycling industry to expose Lance Armstrong as a drugs cheat. On the other, it has Armstrong himself (Ben Foster), propelling himself to multiple Tour de France victories and into the hearts of his countrymen by foul means, not fair. It feels hard to root for Walsh: he’s on the side of truth, but he never comes to life as a character, and the movie hits a slump whenever we’re back in the newsroom with him. Then again, we know we shouldn’t get behind the cyclist. But if the film is conflicted over whose story it’s telling, there is at least one element about which there can be no argument: Ben Foster’s resemblance to Armstrong.

It is not a prerequisite that an actor playing a real figure must be able to swap places with them unnoticed in an identity parade, but Foster could certainly pass that test if it were. Both men have their features crammed into the centre of their faces, lending them a concentrated intensity. And Foster has captured the intentness of Armstrong’s expressions – that taut downward curve in the mouth that looks like an exaggerated frown as drawn by a child.

For the biopic performer, there are several options when it comes to physical accuracy. There is the simple, almost effortless mimicry – a classic example being Ben Kingsley in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. (There have been occasions on which newspapers have printed pictures of Kingsley to accompany a story about the real Gandhi. Let’s blame that on the actor’s persuasive ability to inhabit the part, rather than any laziness in the media.)


Where there is no overwhelming natural similarity, this can be helped along by a recognisable accoutrement or physical characteristic. I wouldn’t swear that Robert Downey Jnr was the spit of Charlie Chaplin (in another Attenborough film, Chaplin).


Or that you couldn’t tell Salma Hayek from Frida Kahlo (in Frida) but it certainly helped that the former had that universally familiar toothbrush-moustache to trick our eyes, and the latter sported a convincing unibrow.


Even once the physical side is in the bag, there is the matter of poise and demeanour to consider. Did Helen Mirren look like Elizabeth II in The Queen (another Frears) or on stage in The Audience? Not especially. But then the bit that isn’t covered by hair, make-up, wardrobe and physiognomy is called “acting”. It should, if all goes according to plan, render cosmetic objections irrelevant. Look at Gary Oldman with the black porcupine spikes and milky-white pallor of Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy. We can see that’s a fancy-dress Sid. But Oldman’s self-belief pushes him, and us, over the line. We buy it. His Joe Orton (Frears yet again: Prick Up Your Ears) is even better, perhaps because he shares with the playwright a natural knowingness that lights them both up from within.

My own favourite sorts of biopic actors are those that succeed through sheer force of will. They don’t look like the people they’re playing, and only the most cursory attempts have been made to convince us they do, but their own internal conviction overrides any complaint. Anthony Hopkins did a fine job of playing the lead in Surviving Picasso but I prefer him in two movies where he had to take more of a running jump: Nixon in Nixon and Hitchcock in Hitchcock. No one ever said about Richard Nixon and Anthony Hopkins: “Isn’t it funny how you never see them in the same room?” But there was something in the slightly delusional casting that made sense in a film about Nixon – never a man, after all, to face the truth when he thought a bald lie would do the job just as well. And by the end of Oliver Stone’s impressively controlled movie, Hopkins had done it. He had strong-armed the audience and bent the whole endeavour to his will. The same was true in Hitchcock: he expanded into a part as though it were an oversized suit he was convinced he could fill. It was a confidence trick. Doesn’t that go for most acting?

It doesn’t always work. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote? The physical disparity is so great (compare it to Toby Jones, far better-suited to the role, in Infamous, which opened around the same time) that it seems to make the effort visible. Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s Milk? Just about. The bubbly enthusiasm of the performance is very winning, just as Milk himself was; it’s a charm offensive, a campaign. Like Hopkins as Nixon, it suits the part. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in the Spike Lee film of the same name? Yes: he has the looks and the charisma. Josh Brolin as George W Bush in (Stone again) W? Remarkably, yes, even though he’s too bulky. His physicality is reduced magically by the character’s small-mindedness and inexperience. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is good but he’s too actorly and not terrifying enough – unlike Yaphet Kotto in the same role in Raid on Entebbe.

Awards season is upon us, so there will be more games of compare-and-contrast: Johnny Depp as the criminal James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs. Don’t talk to me about Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Phillipe Petit in The Walk. Good film but why have they tinkered digitally with the actor’s imploring eyes? He looks like a motion-capture version of himself at times. But no one can seize the Complete Lack of Physical Resemblance prize from Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems not to even believe in himself as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.

Though with his elfin eyes and silver mane, Cumberbatch is a shoo-in if they ever make Legolas: The Later Years.

“The Program” is released 16 October.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.