Monday, 17 December 2012

Constable, Gainsborough, Turner and the Making of Landscape

I was at the Royal Academy in London at the weekend to see their landscape exhibition of Constable, Gainsborough and Turner.

It's quite a small exhibition, very academic, but strangely lacking in paintings.  

There is Constable's The Leaping Horse, all pre-Impressionist sparkly white blobs of paint imitating the passage of light (his famous 'Constable snow')
John Constable, The Leaping Horse (Oil on canvas, 1825)

Constable's subject is ordinary contemporary life, rather than a landscape inhabited by gods and goddesses or the backdrop for historical events.  Landscape itself becomes the subject of the painting.  Constable paves the way for the Impressionists to stride out into the countryside they knew and were familiar with, on the cusp of industrial change, and to record what they saw for its own sake - but this isn't really a point that is made extant.  (Perhaps if Constable had had portable collapsible tin tubes of paint and had lived in a better climate, he would have been an Impressionist 50 years before the Impressionists.)

There is Gainsborough's large dark and dreary romantic landscape with its spotlit sheep, like a more sedate Salvator Rosa landscape but without the bandits or exciting sense of brooding menace.

Thomas Gainsborough, Romantic Landscape (Oil on canvas 1783)

Then there is Turner's rather dull Dolbadern Castle - not exactly the exciting swirl of colour and light that is The Fighting Temeraire.

JMW Turner, ‘Dolbadern Castle’, 1800. Oil on canvas

And then there is a whole load of black and white prints.  

The thrust of the show is that before 1814 and the opening of Britain's first public art gallery (Dulwich), there was no way of seeing grand paintings apart from at auctions or in stately homes.  Prints were an affordable way for the ordinary person (and other artists) to access works of art and put them in their homes. Controlling the output of good-quality prints was also the way for artists the disseminate images of their work, controlling and furthering their careers and making another stream of income.

Which is all well and good, but unless you're into rows and rows of black and white prints, it makes for a very dull show.

The only time I got really excited about any of the exhibits, was when I spied a case containing Turner's brushes.  Why, they were very long, ideal for loose expressive brushstrokes, just like Whistler's long brushes which are on show in the Hunterian Art Gallery in Glasgow!  How thrilling! 

However, it was brought to my attention that actually, this was in fact Turner's fishing rod.  

For more information about the exhibition, which continues until February 17th 2013, click here.

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