Monday, February 11, 2013

'Constable, Gainsborough, Turner and the Making of Landscape' at the RA

Constable, Gainsborough, Turner and the Making of Landscape is in its final week at the Royal Academy of Arts.  It closes on 17th February.
The exhibition draws on the Royal Academy’s Collection to underpin the shift in landscape painting during the 18th and 19th centuries. From Founder Member Thomas Gainsborough and his contemporaries Richard Wilson and Paul Sandby, to JMW Turner and John Constable, these landscape painters addressed the changing meaning of ‘truth to nature’ and the discourses surrounding the Beautiful, the Sublime and the Picturesque.
I was suffering from flu when it opened and then heard that it was disappointing so I'd not rushed to see it. I also avoid all exhibitions over the Christmas break as they are invariably impossibly crowded and hence a waste of time. However my other half was keen to see it and having got over the worst of my second bout of the nasty flu bug(!), we visited the exhibition this morning.

Now visiting an exhibition with the other half means I typically spend a lot less time looking at it which means I often go first and then again with him.  He has very clear ideas of what he likes and what he doesn't like.  Today I learned that what he does like is proper painting and colour and what he doesn't like is an awful lot of fairly dark engravings - even if they are of paintings by Turner!

J.M.W. Turner, R.A.
Norham Castle on the Tweed
1 January 1816
Etching and mezzotint, 17.80 x 26.0 cm
Photo credit: © Royal Academy of Arts, London
My own feeling is that the exhibition title created high expectations - and yet the delivery fell well short of what I would have hoped to see.  For one thing rather a lot of the artwork is actually created by other artists which was a bit of a surprise.  I gather all the works in the show have been drawn from the archives and Diploma Collections of the RA.  That perhaps explains the overwhelming number of prints and the small number of paintings which largely comprised donations by the artists to the RA's Diploma Collection.

Many of the artworks in the exhibitions are engravings, etchings and mezzotints of works "after" paintings by artists other than those in the exhibition title.  Important European artists such as Claude Lorrain, Salavator Rosa, and Poussin are represented - as are British landscape artists some of whome are better known - such as Richard wilson and Paul Sandby while others are much less well known - such as Michael Angelo Rooker.

If they'd called the exhibition just "The Making of the Landscape" I guess I might feel differently about the exhibition.  As it was I found Gainsborough's contribution to be fairly negligible and I missed Turner's paintings of later years.

The star of the show for me was
John Constable - mainly because we had examples of his plein air oil studies as well as worked up studio works.  That said, the show is a pale imitation of the Constable: The Great Landscapes exhibition at Tate Britain in 2006.

John Constable, R.A.
Cloud Study, Hampstead, Tree at Right
11 September 1821
24.10 x 29.90 cm, Oil on paper laid on board, red ground
Photo credit: © Royal Academy of Arts, London; Photographer: John Hammond
John Constable R.A.,
The Leaping Horse, 1825
Oil on canvas, 142 x 187.3 cm
Photo: John Hammond © Royal Academy of Arts, London
In the display cases were a variety of interesting artefacts - including one of Constable's palette's, Turner's travelling watercolour set and palette - together with a handpainted colour chart of the type produced by so many watercolour painters today.

One of the irritations of the exhibition were the display cases which were lined around the rooms and, in some cases, created traffic jams as being moved around the periphery. By way of contrast, there were cavernous empty spaces in the middle of the rooms which were ideal for such display cases.  It would be nice to see display cases placed so they can be viewed from all angles rather than obstructing the view of artwork on the walls.  It happens in other galleries so why not in the RA?

Finally, I'm not sure the narrative accompanying the artwork was as helpful as it could be.  I think those unfamiliar with the development of landscape painting probably learned more from some of the reviews than they did from the words on the walls.

I'm listing the reviews below for those still undecided as to whether to visit this exhibition in its last week.  I recommend you read between the lines.....
This show is an unfair face-off between the two geniuses of British 19th-century art.
Where this exhibition seeks to differentiate itself is in looking at the role that prints played in popularising the genre and branding the painters.
Constable, Gainsborough, Turner at the Royal Academy is a thoughtful, yet frequently frustrating, exhibition about the rise of English landscape painting
oh for some marvellous bursts of painting to alleviate a seemingly endless procession of beautifully detailed and meticulous prints: they make their point – again and again.
I enjoyed this exhibition, but if you’re heading there to marvel at great volumes of work and paintings by the three Masters, you will be disappointed, as one friend I went with announced: “that was the worst exhibition I’ve ever seen”.
I'd have liked to read what Brian Sewell thought - but he hasn't written a review.

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  1. Have to admit I've considered going twice when I was in the area but at £10 felt it was pricey for a mish-mash of artists (however great their names!). You've made me happy I didn't spend the money. I'll go see Ansel Adams again instead. :)

  2. Love that Leaping Horse piece and I really also like that first piece you shared. I really should get out more!

  3. When I see Norham Castle, I feel like a blacksmith rather than a pen & ink artist!

    Did you see that there is there is a Turner Exhibition at Petworth House at the moment?

  4. I did indeed - and they've just opened up again with more tickets as it was sold out!


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