Thursday, September 1, 2022

So it Goes: Accommodating the Sublime

W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.

“Having looked at a work of art, I leave the museum or gallery in which it is on display, and tentatively enter the studio in which it was made. And there I wait in hope of learning something of the story of its making.” – John Berger

Where to begin with the two greatest English landscape painters in history? So great that even an art critic is challenged to find the most accurate ways to extol their truly magnificent achievements? Well, in a diversionary tactic during which I can gather my far-flung thoughts into something resembling coherence, I may start by mentioning that persistent readers of Critics At Large, or even occasional readers with a canny eye, will notice that I have long been intrigued by dualities, polarities, alternates, dichotomies, parallels, binaries, opposites and what Dr. Jung called synchronicity. Far from being merely coincidence, or even what the good doctor called meaningful coincidence, he further explained that synchronicity occurs when two archetypes (images or ideas shared by all of us in the collective unconscious) arise at the same time in roughly the same place.

And so it is with two great painters, Joseph Turner (1775-1851), more commonly identified by the way he signed his works, J.M.W. Turner, and John Constable (1776-1837), the paired and most recognizable icons of landscape representation and also the two most daringly innovative risk takers in the history of painting. That history contains a basic template for presenting images to our insatiably hungry eyes: portrait (close to), still life (nearby), landscape (far from). But in the case of these two exemplars, both of whom were surprising emissaries for a fledgling modernism just then on the cusp of occurring with the advent of the French invention of the camera in about 1839, and the resulting plunge into overall pictorial abstraction continuing to this day, we have a unique case of merging the three formats into one single vertiginous entity.

By this I mean that their landscapes, and even more their stunning skyscapes, were virtual portraits of physical places, while also being still lives with geography as the tabletop, and even a narrative portrayal of epic proportions that transforms the land and sky (especially in their later works as established and competitive masters) into an abstract mindscape. And this is where their binary synchronicity begins to intrigue me even further. All right, then, I’ll admit that it’s a fixation, maybe even an obsession: their birth only one year apart, their highly vexatious parallel careers at the zenith of success in the English, and later global, art markets, and their shocking embrace of the emergence of expressionistic emotional content, with each anticipating what the French Impressionists would later explore, but often some fifty years prior to those fine Gallic practitioners. The lives and works, careers and complaints of Constable and Turner truly did mirror each other in vastly entertaining ways which always make me feel that, their intense rivalry aside, they were still comrades in arms who pushed the limits of our grasp of that nebulous zone of aesthetic experience: the sublime.

So I’m pleased to note that the acclaimed American poet Stanley Plumly, a literature professor at the University of Maryland and author of ten stellar collections of his own fine poetry in addition to three works of non-fiction about the poets Keats, Wordsworth and Lamb, is the ideal art historian to tackle the intricate web of works by Constable and Turner. I will maintain that these two painters are also poets; in fact, I’d suggest that they are the vital visual counterparts of the pastoral lushness of Wordsworth and Keats in optical form. Plumly writes not just persuasively about recognizing these painters’ revolutionary tactics but also perfectly about how their actual lives and biographies stealthily entered their own works, and each other’s, in such profound ways that they are best served by just the very alternating current approach Plumly takes in his poetic appreciation. 

Elegy Landscapes: Constable, Turner and the Intimate Sublime, published by W.W. Norton, takes us on a guided tour of the geography of their imaginations as well as the English geography they both loved to depict, and also a historically significant assessment of how and why they explored the notion of immortality in art via their search for and embrace of the sublime. But he does this in a manner which renders the sublime (an experience of wondrous and beautiful awe first explored by Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant as they examined sublimus, or looking up from under the lintel or limen, towards the high, lofty, exalted) truly palpable. Most important for me, though, in my usual search for puzzles and paradoxes embodied in art and poetry, is the obscure relationship, one often overlooked, between the sublime and the actual subliminal (as in: actively occupying the optical unconscious) and how well Plumly demonstrates its role in the painters’ mutual worship of place

John Constable, Harwich Lighthouse, 1820, oil on canvas.

J.M.W. Turner, Burning of the House of Commons and Parliament, 1834.

Interwoven with the creation of their inspiring masterpieces is Plumly’s cogent study of their nearly daily state of mind as almost exact contemporaries on the brink of entering the modern era, their social positions, their shared ambition to be the greatest landscape artist in history, and their parallel life challenges and tragedies (for Constable the long illness and death of his beloved wife, for Turner the death of his remarkably supportive father). After these two life-altering events, both their mental states, already precariously shaky and hypersensitive, as well as their pictorial styles, soon to become radical in form and content, assumed the shape of a personal grail quest. They were searching for – and found, as I see it – the transcendent aesthetic awe inherent in the sublime qualities bursting out of the natural world they both adored. And they each succeeded, in similar but also distinctive ways and means, in portraying what they felt as they trembled before the majesty of the English countryside.

What made their accomplishment so significant, apart from the charming perfection of their execution, was also the intimacy of their sensations, couched in a drastically close-up perspective which enabled them to share images as if they were pages from a private journal or diary, which, in fact, is precisely what their paintings were: documentary records of their solitary ramblings through the wild. This was the same wildness that their countrymen Wordsworth and Keats reveled in, as well as their American counterpart Walt Whitman, whose monumentally sublime Leaves of Grass from 1855 both of these then just recently departed painters would have enjoyed immensely. Most importantly, Plumly manages to examine not just the joys and sorrows of their intense rivalry but also the often overlooked links between an artists’ personal lives and the emblematic artworks they created to either reflect upon or conceal them.

In this regard, Plumly does literally what the eminent English art historian John Berger, author of the still-vital Ways of Seeing, alluded to as the illuminating experience of leaving a museum and then entering the studio of the artist who made the work he just viewed. Although we can’t enter the painting studios of Constable or Turner, Plumy does the next best thing for us: he still shares what Berger called “something of the story of its making.”

And given my obsession with twin intersecting paths, my favourite aspect of that pictorial story is that the fabula behind the images always revolves around their rivalry as sour soulmates, each bent out of shape by his passions. This compelling aspect of their shared narrative was focused on very well by a fellow art critic, Sebastian Smee, who reviewed the Carter Art Institute’s great retrospective exhibition, Turner and Constable: The Inhabited Landscape, for The Washington Post.

As Smee concisely outlined their contrasts, Constable was a late bloomer whose ambitions may have surpassed his gifts (I don’t agree with him on that point, however), whereas Turner was kind of a shooting star, becoming at age 26 the youngest painter to attain a full status at the Royal Academy. (Poor Constable had to wait until his 50’s, and once ensconced in a position of some authority, he would make strenuously jealous efforts to keep the rock star Turner out of annual juried shows.) Constable often painted scenes which were almost never more than forty miles from Turner’s, as if to cement historically their contested stardom. As Smee points out, Constable was a realist, although Smee doesn’t appear to fully recognize how compulsively abstract his later works, especially my favourite cloud studies of sky bursting with sculptural white volumes, actually were.

John Constable, Cloud Study, oil, 1822.

By contrast, I greatly admire Smee’s characterization of the admittedly more experimental Turner:

As Turner’s career progressed, he seemed to grow impatient with ordinary reality as he intensified his search for the sublime (the word describes a kind of greatness or grandeur that causes the brain’s capacity for comprehension to crack apart, like a clay pot left too long in the kiln.) Why is it we love these oppositions? Truth versus appearances, conservative versus progressive, romantic versus classical. The impulse echoes down into all the most famous rivalries.

Anyone out there who has seen the 2014 Mike Leigh film version of Turner’s life, Mr. Turner, with Timothy Spall as the nervous artist, can attest that Turner was definitely, and defiantly, cracked. Constable has yet to be revealed on the big screen, but believe me, he too was suitably crackers.

And a fine echo of this romantic contest are those other great modernist rivalries, Matisse and Picasso, Pollock and de Kooning. And we’re even able to trace the pattern elsewhere: Beatles/Stones, Pepsi/Coke, Ronaldo/Messi, Nike/Reebok, Chamberlain/Russell, Connors/McEnroe. The beat goes on, much to my binary delight. One thing I do know for certain: if Turner had been around a century later than he was, he would have been utterly charmed with the Yankee equivalent of his search for a painted sublime in the hands of a master abstract expressionist such as Mark Rothko, especially Rothko’s orange/yellow thresholds. I doubt if Turner would have batted an eye or failed to detect a soulmate in the postwar New Yorker’s haunting appetite for an identical grandeur, but once reduced to minimalist essentials in brilliant golden squares that spiritually mirrored some of Turner’s own stormy sunsets or smudged fires. He would have loved it. In many ways, he made Rothko’s own search for an intimate sublime possible in the first place.

But not to be outdone, and I don’t think he ever was, Constable, even before his own late magical cloud studies, was already reducing elemental forces in the sky to nearly abstract formal properties. And he did it in a manner that must have bewitched, bothered and bewildered his somewhat more famous (but not more legendary) arch-enemy of the canvas.

Constable’s depiction of a simple rainstorm, in a masterful print executed almost a decade before Turner’s furious and ferocious sunsets at sea, captured a whole ocean in the sky. Rainstorm is, in my opinion, one of the first Impressionist paintings ever made, nearly a full half-century before Monet’s 1872 Impression Sunrise, the radical work after which the entire movement was subsequently (and derisively) named. Constable’s metaphysical weather forecast is, quite simply, one of the most advanced artworks ever produced. For me, he is still living in the distant future. And Stanley Plumley’s wonderful Elegy Landscapes goes a long way to helping us understand what makes him and Turner so permanently visionary: each epoch dreams the one that follows it. 

Mark Rothko, Orange and Yellow, 1956.

Constable, Rainstorm, oil on canvas, 1826.

 Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the recent book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, as well as the biographies Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, 2018, and Tumult!: The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner2020, and a book on the life and art of the enigmatic Yoko Ono, Yoko Ono: An Artful Life, released in April 2022. His latest work in progress is a new book on family relative Charles Brackett's films made with his partner Billy Wilder, Double Solitaire: The Films of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder.


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