Sunday, November 16, 2014

England's Greatest Painter?

For the past year or so, we have been very remiss in keeping up with the exhibitions in London's museums. In my head, I tally up a remorse list of exhibitions I have missed over the years, and I'm afraid I have added quite a few entries to the list recently.  I can't even come up with a reasonable excuse other than the lame one that time seemed to fly by so quickly I could hardly keep up with anything, even exhibitions that were on display for months, but were gone before I remembered they were happening. There are so many exhibitions to see at the moment, we decided to attack them with gusto today. No excuses for being tired, it might rain, or it's a bit chilly today.

Two weekends ago we saw the film Mr Turner, relying on the 100% assurance of every film critic in London this was the film of the year to see. Bob hated the film; I found its pretentious arty-ness insufferable. (Both Timothy Spall, as Mr Turner,  and the cinematography are great.) The film is a bio-pic of Turner's last years. He lived a very long time —75 years— and painted until the very end. Audience critics (who are no where near 100% in their appreciation) complain there is no plot, just a series of vignettes haphazardly thrown together. There is truth in the no plot critique, but after a day or so I decided the plot is hidden in the vignettes, which can each be seen as an evidence of loss as Mr Turner ages, the loss of family, friends, reputation, mobility, memory, ability, one by one, and finally loss of life. When I explained this insight to Bob, he said, a plot that needs 24 hours of work to understand and then needs to be explained, is not a plot. I couldn't entirely disagree.

Since we had seen the film I felt we should go the Tate Britain to see the accompanying exhibition of Turner's Last Works. Bob likes Turner's work more than I like them. And Turner did so many . . . and he willed them to the nation, so they are easy to find in order to fill rooms and rooms. Jonathan Jones, art critic of The Guardian, fast becoming the worst newspaper in the world, says Turner is England's greatest artist, as the film's trailer declares, but I will add that last month, Jonathan Jones also called the Tower of London's poppy display "fake, trite and inward-looking" along with "deeply aestheticised, prettified, and toothless." So what does he know. His written response the following week to the outcry of commenters who were aghast was even dimmer with an explanation that he was not speaking from "trendy cynicism," but from his preference for Otto Dix's skull paintings. Jones offers the suggestion the Tower's moat should have been filled with blood, bones, and barbed wire for a real memorial. Perhaps people will keep that in mind for the display needed in 2018 to top this year's poppies.

As we toured the rooms of the exhibition, all I could think of was Henning Mankell's police detective Kurt Wallander, whose father spent his life painting the same painting . . . some with a grouse, some without. I guess it's not fair to blame the artist when his style has been appropriated to decorate motel rooms and dentist's offices a century later. Turner is a brilliant painter, and his watercolours are even better, but is the sky always the same colour every day?  Jonathan Jones will be happy to know the Tate's galleries were nearly as crowded today as the walkways around the Tower were last week. So perhaps some of those he lambasted for enjoying "popular art" are also prepared to enjoy "fine art."

After we finished at the Tate, we headed to the V&A for the chance to compare and contrast Turner with England's other great painter of the first half of the 19th century, John Constable. Poor Mr Constable was always the loser in his rivalry with Mr Turner. Born only a year apart, Turner began his art training at the Royal Academy when he was 14 years old, and became an R.A. less than 10 years later. Meanwhile, Constable's father kept John at home to help run the family's prosperous grain milling and coal supply business, and would not let him begin his studies at the Academy until he was nearly 25 years old. His rivalry with Turner and his innovative painting techniques kept Constable from becoming an R.A. until he was in his mid-50s. As a final insult, Constable died at 60, depriving him of  the last decade and a half of painting enjoyed so effusively by Turner which filled the walls of the Tate's exhibition space.

Over the past few years, the V&A has had some poorly curated shows, but happily Constable, the Making of a Master is not one of them. He was a meticulous painter who wanted to bring back landscape painting to the standards of the French painters Poussin and Claude Lorrain, especially Claude Lorrain. The exhibition takes you through the steps Constable employed to meet his own exacting standards. The plein air pencil sketching and oil sketches were blocked into larger paintings in the studio. Detailed studies of landscape elements — the flora and especially the clouds in the sky — were done to depict them accurately in the final work. This was an era when science was burgeoning, and Constable believed artists needed to be accurate because landscape painting could be seen as a facet of the scientific study of the natural world. He used measured grids and glass overlays to get the correct proportions of landscape features within a scene. When preparing his large paintings for the Royal Academy's Annual Show, he did full size sketches of the 6-foot paintings.

The best part of the exhibition is the large number of oil sketches that are on display. The V&A has so many Constables because in 1888 his surviving daughter Isabel donated the contents of his studio to the Museum. The collection included notebooks, and sketchbooks, and the supremely beautiful little oil sketches Constable did in the open air. Some are always on display, but this exhibition has many more on the walls. My very favourite, of a elm tree trunk (that I initially thought was a photograph when I saw it years ago, and then realised the camera had not yet been invented) turns out to have been Lucian Freud's favourite too. For an homage to Constable exhibition mounted in Paris about 10 years ago, Freud produced an etching of a tree trunk because as an art student he tried to copy Constable's sketch and gave up. The French have always appreciated Constable, much more than the English did during his life time, and despite the fact he never crossed the Channel. The French bought his work and awarded him honorary medals. His plein air painting influenced the mid-century French landscapes of Courbet and Corot, the forerunners of Impressionism and other modern movements in France that followed.

I am not a fan of calculating who is great, who is greater, who is the greatest. Clearly I am biased toward Constable in this match. But what a great afternoon . . . and it didn't rain and it wasn't very cold and we had good reason to be tired when we got home.

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