Turner vs. Constable

“Who’s the better artist, Turner or Constable?” So one will probably wonder after seeing the simultaneous retrospectives at the Tate Britain and Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Such a question may seem vulgar and offensive to the indisputable canon that is Western art, especially where Turner and Constable are staunchly attributed as Britain’s greatest artists. Nonetheless, Turner and Constable were rivals, there’s no question in that respect. Art has been known for rivalries; they go all the way back to the medieval times, even our early human ancestors might have said a few mean words over cave paintings. Two of art’s most loved artists – Da Vinci and Michelangelo – were commissioned to depict two battle scenes in the Council Hall of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Michelangelo made it clear to Leonardo that he did not like him, and Leonardo fled to France for a while, apparently mentioning in his journal of the “wooden” qualities of Michelangelo’s painting. Constable and Turner were not too much different. In 1813, they had dinner together at the Royal Academy. Constable wrote afterwards of Turner’s “wonderful range of mind.” Privately though, he did not understand the appeal of paintings that were “just steam and light.” Turner, always confident, thought of himself as “the great lion of the day.” No, the rivalry did not get physical. Regardless, it is the closest you’ll see two artists being lowered down to the equivalent of a boxing ring. Privately, the Tate Britain and the V&A will be hoping Turner and Constable won’t beat their reanimated corpses to a pulp to find out who is the better artist, for it is a matter that enables comparison; an activity that is not degrading as one of them will be the cornerstone of a new wave of art. It is not just a question of who is the better artist, but who is the more important artist for today and the future.

Long before Turner was aiming his broadsides to what was fashionable in art, he was a highly regarded artist at the Royal Academy. Before his arrival, he had been engaged in producing watercolors; a medium he would soon use for his ambitious depictions that are not entirely conducive for such a small-scale. He submitted his first oil painting, “Fishermen at Sea,” to the Royal Academy’s spring exhibition in 1796. It is a painting that was right for the time. It met the requirements of a work that had to be done in the ‘Grand Style’; the 18th century theory of the Sublime, which held that art should only deal with the noble and the powerful. In “Fishermen at Sea,” Turner fashionably uses moonlight in contrast with the flickering lantern, thus not too subtly stressing how the fishermen are pawns in the hands of nature in the midst of an unruly sea. This hand has been dealt before down the years. You can see it in the Hudson River School, an American movement that is noticeably European and is looking increasingly unoriginal. Turner himself was being unoriginal with this canvas. This nocturnal scene is not too different than the paintings done during same period by Horace Vernet and Joseph Wright of Derby. Yet, it’s foolish of me to expect that Turner should have rewritten the rules of art at the start of his career, especially when he was not yet a member of the Royal Academy. And the later Turner can’t be expected to develop without roots, it takes a steady maturation that accumulates with years of study and practice. Nevertheless, when Turner did unleash his artistic prowess, it would be done in the vein of someone attempting to be “the great lion” of his day.

"Fishermen at Sea," Tate Collection

“Fishermen at Sea,” J.M.W. Turner, Tate Collection

Turner’s works are indeed a violent counterpoint to Constable’s pastoral Eden. There can sometimes be no semblance of form in Turner’s output. This can be especially seen in his sketchbooks, especially the Channel Sketchbook that belongs to the Yale Center for British Art. He apparently produced 290 sketchbooks during his life; a testament to his insatiable desire to reproduce whatever he saw. It’s astonishing how Turner is able to translate his power of observation from oil into largely watercolor. Apparently, Turner did not work in his usual quick, economic manner in this sketchbook. He instead, as the curatorial comment on the sketchbook describes,  “worked through the sketchbook in one direction, making watercolor drawings on the right-hand leaves, and then to have turned it upside down, working from back to front.” He even created a sequence of thirteen graphite drawings that depicts the development of a sun setting over the sea. While it’s naive to think that cursory sketches are abstract ramblings, Turner is able to show us that modicum of non-representation in his work. He could in a fleeting moment decipher the majesty of the natural elements. He constructed what the art critic John Canaday once called an, “universal expression.” Universal or not, Constable in 1822 declared, “the art will go out: there will be no genuine painting in England in thirty years.” That date coincided almost exactly with Turner’s death in 1851.

"The Channel Sketchbook," J.M.W. Turner, Yale Center for British Art

“The Channel Sketchbook,” J.M.W. Turner, Yale Center for British Art

Constable was an artist guided by his own personal vision. Most artists at the time left England for inspiration, Constable did not. He once said, “I should paint my own places best.” His name is so intertwined with his native Stour Valley that it is sometimes referred to as, “Constable country.” In this country, he produced Impressionistic studies of that “chief organ of sentiment:” the sky. He was more fascinated by the atmospheric effects that are bludgeoned in Turner’s heavy-hitting oeuvre. At times, Constable seems stunningly proto-Impressionist. He made oil studies of Salisbury Cathedral from differing viewpoints under various weather conditions. It makes me think of Monet’s studies of Rouen Cathedral. Except in that case, Monet had acquired an apartment from across the street, so he did some thirty-three canvases over an extended period of time. I prefer Constable’s layman’s perspective to Monet’s hostile, melting facades. It’s more interesting to see a cathedral depicted in tandem with nature than meekly stand alone as a practice in artistic theory. Anyway, Constable’s too easily dismissed sentimental outlook always belied his subtle grace and sincerity as a painter.

"Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Grounds," John Constable, Victoria and Albert Museum

“Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Grounds,” John Constable, Victoria and Albert Museum

"Rouen Cathedral, the Facade in Sunlight," Claude Monet, The Clark Art Institute

“Rouen Cathedral, the Facade in Sunlight,” Claude Monet, Clark Art Institute

As far as “genuine painting” goes, Constable is entirely honest. He is typically more interested in the calm before the storm; a mood that is not what Turner strives for. Constable’s art is the afterglow of a shower of rain, celestial cathedral spires and inseparable hedgerows. He’s poetically adept in this sense. Furthermore, Constable is a preservationist of that ill defined concept – Englishness. Turner was not nostalgic and did not limit himself to the parameters of his location or national conscious. Turner was more general; he preserved the romanticism of nature’s heart and fire in his “deserts of vast eternity.” Turner’s canvases must have attacked the viewer during the wake of industrialism. Constable, though, was performing the autopsy by subverting the fact into myth: the agricultural England isolated from the approaching factories, railways and steamships; the England of myth and paradise. His most known example of this form of a painterly oasis is “The Hay Wain,” a canvas that Robert Hughes called, “a sort of vegetative Mona Lisa.” I wonder though if another painting that might be equally as good would be a better example. The artwork would be “Wivenhoe Park,” a preservation of an ethereal England that just seems more English than “Hay Wain,” for as Robert Hughes said (in what is increasingly looking like his best essay to me), “In his work even God is an Englishman.” Going by the shadowy foreground, you can tell that Constable is clearly painting from under a tree. The painting is like your typical English sunny afternoon. Constable seems to like keeping civilization far away from his subjects, for the pink house is nestled behind the trees, as if the enjoyment is to be found among the pond where mute swans dwell, and birds dance above the trees.

"Wivenhoe Park," John Constable, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

“Wivenhoe Park, Essex,” John Constable, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

When I was at the V&A and National Gallery in London, I saw both painters juxtaposed. Honestly, I was miffed. Turner, at that point to me, seemed so grandiose; so brimming with an energy that makes other paintings look weak in comparison. Constable, a more subtle stylist, suffered in these initial viewings. Even at the Yale Center for British Art where I was first properly exposed to Turner and Constable, it was too easy for me to be intoxicated by Turner in his handling of light that is reminiscent of Claude Lorrain. Constable is more impressionistic in his use of light. At the time, I was not a fan of Impressionism. Yet, I can understand why curators see the need to pit both artists against the other. Both lived at the same time and primarily painted landscapes, thus the comparisons are unavoidable. I have to admit though, before this essay, I was keenly interested in distinguishing between the two and making a definitive judgement. But after reading Robert Hughes’ essay on Constable and viewing Constable’s work more comprehensively, it would be unfair of me to slight this artist who clearly forged as much of a world on canvas as Turner did. Still, one is more applicable to the modern day art world.

The curator of the Turner show at the V&A is being evasive in answering the question of who is better: Turner or Constable? Mark Evans says that it’s like asking, “do you prefer Rothko or Freud?” Since two can play this game, I would say I prefer Rothko to Freud. Notwithstanding, I can see why Evans makes the comparison. Rothko and Turner are more epic and emotional. Constable and Freud are more concerned with the truth of things. Turner though will be responsible for reigniting the marrows of art. Art today is largely devoid of sincerity, unity, ambiguity and harmony. Logically, painting will inexorably revert to some semblance of classicism. There is no question of this outcome. Artists now or in the future will have to consider a compromise in the face of extremist minimalism, pop culture and digitization of art. At the moment, you could jeeringly say that there is no such thing as contemporary painting. And if there is, it has been horribly mutilated beyond recognition to what came before it. Some would say that the reason for this unfortunate transformation is because art has been on a natural path of deconstruction that will continue on till the earth ceases to turn. You could put any date to this occurrence of “deconstruction,” or abstraction; Turner would be a good candidate actually. Yet, I should much doubt that this ceaseless vortex of art will be unassailable for the rest of time. Someone is going to have the guts to look back at the past and it’s not going to be Constable they’ll be looking to. It’s going to be Turner, the grandfather of modern art. Turner achieved that balance between the classical and the abstract. I believe artists will seek such a balance in time. A future that is anything different is difficult to imagine, for it is inevitable.

In much broader terms, I find this question of Turner’s artistic legacy applicable to contemporary art. It’s fair to say that we have been conditioned into thinking that what happens in the past, happens, and has little correlation with the present and the future. We comfort ourselves in the progressive, quotable view that, “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” but don’t fully realize how the past will effect the future. The present art climate has been bogged done in questions over whether money and art can coexist and whether art can function as a possible democracy (e.g. photography in museums, Google Art Project), that we have lost any bearing over what art is coming down the pipeline. If we look to the past we can see indicators, for history does not exist in an impossible bottle that can be sectioned off into movements or periods, like geographical boundaries that don’t really exist. What we can see is that the past can be repeated and not always in “doomed” fashion. For art, there can be stylistic norms that are set for a specific place and time and, down the line, set off again. The garishness of the Rococo can be seen in the decadence of the art of Jeff Koons. Let’s not forget though where the Rococo ended up – the guillotine. Koons and his like won’t last forever. Another artist from long ago, Caravaggio, has permeated a whole other form of art – film, in the way of film noirs, for example. Also, the film movement, the French New Wave, is eerily similar in freshness and originality to the Impressionists. And these are only a few examples. It would be unwise to forget the prominent inevitability of art: to respond with exhilarating immediacy to a culture, art that inflames through style and originality, without, above all, losing harmony.


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