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Constable: The Making of a Master – Victoria and Albert Museum
December 18, 2014
Constable is a man who suffers from a reputation that has outgrown his legacy. He has become the notion of an idealised English landscape – cathedrals, heaths and clouds are the watchwords of his visual language and his pictures compositions of rural symphonies.
Often and especially of late, Constable has been compared to his contemporary J.M.W Turner whose works in contrast seem more dramatic and vigorous; more progressive and important within the art historical narrative. Yet this show goes to prove the dedication that Constable established in creating his delicate, sensual paintings. The exhibition relies heavily on a somewhat academic approach through emphasising the works that Constable revered and replicated. Rooms are studded across each wall with engravings by Old Masters such as Ruisdael, Poussin, Claude and Rubens alongside copies in which Constable has clearly spent many hours trying to emulate each. When seeing these comparisons side by side it becomes instantly clear to the viewer the skill that the painter possessed. Each is a meticulous study, yet peppered with Constable’s signature use of dappled lighting, scientifically accurate cloud forms and playful rustic wonder. Often substituting the characters present in the Old Master originals for empty pastoral spaces, one can begin to understand Constable’s comfort in isolation and the solace he found in natural forms. The evolution of pictures from plein air illustrations to full-size oil sketches and final six foot pieces provides a charming insight into the artist’s working method; something often overlooked in modern exhibition curation but which here, provides a narrative process invocative of Constable’s perfectionism.
His romantic obsession with the scientific study of nature from Brighton to Suffolk, enabled him to capture the fleeting comforts of English weather. Yet watercolours such as Stonehenge, 1835, prove his ability to let himself go, expunging the myth that he was chocolate-box or even sterile in his output.
Masterpieces such as The Hay Wain encapsulate the genteel pace of country life during the nineteenth century. Where Turner sees the oncoming threat of the Industrial Revolution, Constable sees provincial life continuing as it has for many centuries, with no change bound. His paintings are exceptionally calm and assuring, and it is this exact allure and genius that often makes them so overlooked. It’s hard as a native to not cherish the pastures he presents as an owned, yet shared, idyllic heritage.
Constable: The Making of a Master continues at the V&A until 11th January 2015. For more information go to www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/exhibition-constable-the-making-of-a-master