Friday, 18 January 2013

Constable, Gainsborough, Turner and the making of landscape

Royal Academy, 8 December 2012 – 17 February 2013

Dolbadern Castle, by JMW Turner, 1800. From the Royal Academy.
An opportunity to see the originality of Turner and Constable as landscape painters, by helpfully contrasting with both earlier masters and their immediate predecessors.

The subtitle is ambiguous. Does it mean simply the way landscape paintings are made, technically? Or does it mean something like the invention of landscape? Either way, it is misleading.  

I believe the curators mean to show how the sublime entered British landscape painting towards the end of the 1700s. This is a rather more modest claim, in keeping with the mere handful of oil landscapes from the three painters on display. 

The rest of the exhibition is mostly monochrome, specifically prints and drawings from the three great painters and from earlier landscape artists, along with some watercolours, mezzotints, etc. 

Something certainly enters the landscapes of Constable and Turner that is not present in the earlier landscapes here, but I am not sure it is ‘the sublime’. 

The great landscape painters were simply more receptive than earlier artists, more absorbed with representing the sky, the foliage, and how man-made objects interacted with these. With Turner the world seems awash with sunlight; with Constable woodland vitality overwhelms us.

A Prospect of the Chee Torr &c. on the River Wye, an engraving after Thomas Smith of Derby, 1743.
From the Royal Academy.
Earlier artists displayed here captured the grandeur of natural scenery, and may as a result be better candidates for sublimity. But overall, their landscapes display a sense of order and proportion, so that a ruined abbey reminds us that human works need not endure.  

By contrast, Constable and Turner at their most characteristic simply ignore human works. As with Wordsworth’s finest poetry, they have no need to find a conventionally sublime subject in order to evoke awe; any subject can evoke awe if, for example, the sunlight or woodland is as powerful as these painters made it.

In explaining these differences, there seems no need to use a treacherous word like sublime, which in the eighteenth century was contrasted with the beautiful. Surely the Constables are beautiful? Nor need we denigrate the earlier painters as merely picturesque or topographic, as though Turner and Constable didn’t care that they painted what they saw. The earlier artists seek something different, a more human scale (or when necessary a gargantuan scale, but to impress humans). 

Gainsborough’s headlining here is puzzling, as I would link him more with the earlier landscape painters, who were his contemporaries. His talent is greater, but the content is similar: ordered, contrasting the human with the grand.  

This is also found in the prints and reproductions of great masters that inspired all these artists. In the Italians, landscape is generally a stage for a human or divine drama. In the French, Dutch and Flemish masters landscape becomes an end in itself, but still confined within human reason, something to be admired perhaps, or if feared, feared for sane reasons.

With Turner, with Constable, we find a new focus, on the power of the imagination on nature (or perhaps vice versa). It is not so much the external world these painters depict, as the explicit effect of our imagination when observing the world. Constable is less dramatic than Turner, but conveys the same sense of heightened reality.  

Enough engaging with the curators. Go to see the great oil paintings, and admire the many prints and drawings.

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