Sex and death in squares ... Robe Magdalena, 2017, by Sean Scully. Photograph: Courtesy the artist
National Gallery, London Sean Scully’s work has been placed alongside a much-misunderstood seascape by Turner. The result is a fascinating exhibition full of insight, power and glorious melting colour
Sometimes it takes a painter to see a painter. At the heart of Sean Scully’s exhibition in the National Gallery is an eye-opening meeting between him and JMW Turner on a beach where sky, sea and land are melting into an abstract layering of light.
Turner was born in London in 1775 and by the time of his death in 1851 he was seen by baffled Victorians as an abstracted madman throwing mustard and curry powder at his canvases. Scully was born in Dublin in 1945 and has never doubted his vocation as an abstract artist. You are more likely to see him on Celebrity Bake Off than painting a recognisable face or tree – and that’s not likely at all for an artist who consciously wears the mantle of great modern painters such as Mark Rothko and Ellsworth Kelly.
Scully has chosen one painting from the National Gallery collection, Turner’s beachscape The Evening Star, painted in about 1830, to hang with his own stripes and grids of wet-looking colour. In Turner’s picture, the planet Venus twinkles in a sky that is a dust of blue and yellow particles made milky by mist, over a bank of smoky dying clouds, a blackening sea and a crabflesh beach. You can study it up close, then walk backwards like I did, keeping it in your sight, until you are viewing it between two paintings by Scully composed of bands of dark colour layered over each other in a way that echoes the horizontal sublimity of Turner’s canvas. Blues and purples create a mood of evening rumination that matches Turner’s mysterious twilight. Scully shows that in its dissolution of reality into an atmosphere of indefinable chromatic suggestiveness, Turner’s Evening Star is an abstract masterpiece.
Mysterious twilight ... The Evening Star, circa 1830, by JMW Turner. Photograph: The National Gallery, London