Thursday, February 8, 2007

A Nostalgic Journey...

... back into the English countryside yesterday, with a visit to the current exhibition of John Constable's "six-footers" at the Huntington Library in Pasadena. An amazing assemblage of Constable's greatest landscapes, set side by side with a selection of the drawings, the small painted sketches and the full-sized sketches that the artist made in preparation for the final works--the fruit of his ambitious labors to be admitted to the Royal Academy. My companion for the afternoon, an artist, was most taken with the sketches, attracted by the "loose" quality that freed them from the social contingency of providing a naturalistic interpretation of the world--a function which has since been taken over by the camera. He himself--if I understand him right--is looking to escape the influence of the photograph in his work, and to capture, rather than the superficial versimilitude, the spiritual quality inherent in what it is he paints.

I have likely oversimplified my friend's intentions here, but I do believe that is also what Constable was about--and that he surely considered the sketches no more than a stop along the path. With the benefit of hindsight--and a lot of subsequent art history--we see their "looseness" as a precursor of the impressionist aesthetic. On reflection, I myself would tend to see that quality more in the work of Turner than in Constable. Or even, say, William Blake, whose pursuit of the spiritual was more turbulent, more visionary, less attached to the illusionary appearances of mundane reality. With Constable, I tend to trust the artist: for sure, his intentions were guided somewhat by what he saw to be the demands of his particular audience, but those big, finished paintings were, to my mind, the goalposts he was aiming for from the first preliminary sketches.

The "spirit", as I see it, in Constable's work, is the spirit of place--to use the Latin term, the genius loci. That fits in with the whole trope of the Romantic moment. Wordsworth and Coleridge, when they first started out with their joint effort, the "Lyrical Ballads," were much influenced by the Greek Anthology, which they saw to be the wellspring of all lyrical poetry. These were inscription poems--a more lovely version of "Kilroy was here", that age-old impulse to leave a mark of one's ephemeral passage through a particular point in space and time--poems that celebrated, in effect, the "spirit of the place," the genius loci.

For Constable, the "place" was very largely the vicinity of a small bend in the Stour River in the county of Suffolk, England. He brought the incredible concentration of an eye that missed nothing in the landscape, and the dedication of a heart that deeply loved this native corner of the world. His tireless, inexhaustible visual search for its peculiar truth, what we might call the "spirit of the place", resulted in the major components of this exhibition. Everything from the quick ink sketches to the extraordinary canvases, whose shades and brilliant luminosities evoke that particular something timeless and ethereal beyond themselves, a something that literally dwarfs the human and the animal figures that inhabit the represented scene.

OK, it is a Romantic notion--and these are Romantic paintings. It's hard for me, in all honesty, to find my way past the jigsaw puzzle picturesqueness of it all. Constable's idealization butts up against my pragmatic and reductive inclinations. Despite the shared geographical roots--this is the countryside in which I myself grew up, or close to it--I find myself admiring the paintings more than I can feel with them and resorting, like my friend, to the detail of paint and brushwork to maintain my interest. I want things to be more real.

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