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Seen and Heard Art Review



CONSTABLE: The Great Landscapes: Tate Britain (AR)

I do not consider myself at work without I am before a six-foot canvas.” John Constable 1821

Tate Britain’s important exhibition offers the first opportunity to view nine of John Constable's seminal six-foot exhibition canvases together. The 'six-footers' are among his most famous paintings including The Hay Wain 1820–21, The Leaping Horse 1825, and Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows 1831.

Constable's decision to start painting huge six-foot landscapes around 1818–9 marks a major turning point in his life and was largely a strategy to get noticed by the Royal Academy. Constable painted full-scale preliminary ‘sketches’ for most of these ‘six-footers’ and here we can see them juxtaposed with their ‘final versions’. By placing the sketches in close proximity with their finished counterparts the viewer can make immediate comparisons. By and large, the ‘sketches’ reveal themselves to be far more free, fresh, rugged and alive than their rather pristine and polished versions which are highly wrought and varnished into academic aspic in order to get them accepted by the Royal Academy.



The Lock - Final Version




The Lock- Sketch


Unfortunately, reproductions of his work can never capture the sparkling sensation of what is referred to as ‘Constable snow’– or ‘semenesque sensationing’ – the tiny flecks and dashes of white paint artfully applied to evoke the play of light on the surface of things – people, foliage, water, etc. What makes ‘Constable snow’ so seductive and poignant is that the paint comes across (subconsciously) directly onto the nervous system unlike illustrational painting which operates via conscious literal representation.

Today, Constable’s sketches are highly regarded as great works of art in their own right and in some cases are even superior to the more highly finished version. In The Lock (final version) 1824 the paint is drab, dull and tame and drained of spontaneity compared with The Lock (full-size sketch) 1823 which is so vibrant and alive with its shimmering figures and ‘semenesque’ splattered sky brought to life by the Constable ‘snow’. Similarly, The Leaping Horse (final version) 1825 is heavy handed with figure and horse looking far too stiff compared with The Leaping Horse (full-size sketch) 1824 where the figure and horse are largely made up of arbitrary, almost abstract marks. It is Constable’s genius to paint non-illustrational images without ever being completely abstract. This is realized in The White Horse (full-size sketch) 1818 where the cows are constructed out of non-representational, arbitrary marks yet look far more fresh and real than the more ‘finished’ and literal cows in the final version of The White Horse 1819.



Salisbury Cathedral - Sketch




Salisbury Cathedral - Final Version


Whilst Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (full size sketch) 1829-31 has wonderful white whips of shimmering paint, the actual composition lacks balance and harmony and seems rather heavy handed and out of joint in comparison with Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows with Rainbow (final version) which is harmonious and luminous with the addition of an arching rainbow thatanchors the cathedral and acts as a boomerang throwing the viewer in and out of the image as it were.




The Opening of Waterloo Bridge


The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (first version) 1820-25 is heavy, crude and dull and lacks the lustre and allure of the luminous evanescence of the final version of The Opening of Waterloo Bridge [Whitehall stairs, June 18thm 1817] 1832 and which took 13 years to paint. I would argue that this is Constable’s greatest painting. By 'painting' I mean that the paint itself makes the form and does not merely fill it all in (like painting-by-numbers) to paraphrase Bacon’s critique of Matthew Smith (1879-1959).

This non-logical form of letting the paint speak for itself via arbitrary, non-representational marks is seen in the animated people on the balconies and barges where Constable suggests persons through evocation, pulsation and sensation rather than painting literal images of them.

This is also evoked in Hadleigh Castle (full size sketch) 1828-9 where the white sea gulls are made of a single squiggle made by the wooden end of a brush. These random paint marks have a greater reality than photo-realism because the paint ‘has a life of its own’ and ‘lives on its own’ – as Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) and Francis Bacon (1909-1992) said about the organic tangible, malleable and chance quality of paint.

Constable’s full-size sketches could be called an ‘abstract-realism’ and have all the freedom of both ‘action painting’ and ‘abstract expressionism’ whilst retaining an added realism and ‘chance-discipline’ that give them far more power and poignancy than both of these later art movements. Whilst Pollock’s marks are too abstract, becoming a kind of decoration on Dasein (being there in the world) – Constable’s free-marks have a raw realism akin to the radical tachiste - free-marks - of Henri Michaux (1899-1984) whose ink drawings hover between realism and abstraction. What makes Constable’s 'free marks' more modern and radical is that they remain within a recognisable realism whilst being absolutely arbitrary in their articulation  - and so reach parts of our being that other painter’s marks cannot reach. Constable’s raw realism presents reality in itself as it is – oozed out organic stuff – and does not represent reality second hand via inane illustration.

Thus, Constable’s radical realism has much more power, potency and presence compared to Damien Hirst’s real but sterile and safe, shark and sheep installations. Hirst’s work has no sensation and cannot shine – Constable is pure sensation because his sketches continue to shine.

This illuminating exhibition has been immaculately curated by Anne Lyles and Rachel Tant, together with Franklin Kelly at the National Gallery of Art, Washington. It will travel to the National Gallery of Art, Washington in the autumn of 2006 before opening at the Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino, in early 2007. The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue published by Tate Publishing.

Alex Russell

Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1P 4RG 1st June – 28 August 2006




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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)