10 May 2015

Underground sketching, drawing at full speed.

Commuting in the underground is not always wonderful. It beats driving any day however. At the very least it is a chance to spend some time with yourself (granted, a very squeezed yourself enveloped in humanity with all that implies). I actually have come to look forward to the trip because I can sketch the immense diversity of London types. For anyone that wants to emulate this activity, here are some things I find useful:

Often, I add some marker shading at home, not in the train.

You will find a wide array of models to choose from in the tube: young, old, well dressed  or messy, black and white and everything in between. While there is a lot of variety, most people spend their trip staring at their phones which makes for strikingly similar demeanor.

The page format is irrelevant but it should be comfortable to carry discreetly.
Eye-contact in the London tube is tantamount to assault so I try to chose someone to draw who is not too close or  directly in front of me -no matter how tempting the beautiful guy with the turban might be. I haven't gotten into any serious trouble but I've had the occasional gal deliberately turn away and the random guy give me dirty looks. If the subject is a child,parents might  or might not like you  doodling. The London crowd is a vocal crowd so you'll know. For the most part, people are complimentary and curious. When drunk, they invariably want you to draw them so avoid drunks like the plague.

If tsubjects stay long enough, you can make elaborate compositions.
It goes without saying, there is no telling when your model will  move or simply bolt out with no regard for your beautiful rendering. Don't linger, this is an exercise in speed, gesture and memory. As in life, nobody is too precious and they all are.

so many races and outfits. So many cellphones and earphones as well.

Guess what else moves. The train. Modern trains are a whisper but drawing in the Bakerloo line will test your limits so don't wait for full careening down the tunnel to add that perfect nose line. This might be the time to work on a particularly wiry afro for example.

The morning commute, not a good time to pull out the pencils.

Weekends and evenings have more variety anyway.

Snoring, kissing, reading, eating and breaking into song, all in the tube.
Equipment simplicity: This is not the place to  pull out an easel and take measurements with extended arm. Backpacks and clipping boards are not efficient. A simple pencil box and a notebook that fits in your pocket are best. That's it, quick and to the point. Add an eraser and pencil sharpener for emergencies.
Stations themselves have some unique features and depth.

 You learn to draw the figure through gesture, its pose and the pose of clothes. You also learn to reduce the figure to its most salient features and details without time for perfect outlines, shading or intricate skirt patterns. I try to make little portraits, not generic ones. A casual observer should be able to pick each character individually.  You'll discover that being selective with detail is much more important than adding every detail.

so many faces, so little time.

Don't sweat the wrong stuff.  Go for the next victim...er model.

Compose the page. Make the whole page look interesting to look at. This is actually fun. Leave some blank space, play with negative shapes, use contrasting figures and groups. Incorporate a bit of the environment if it helps to break the monotony or move from faces to feet to dogs  to suitcases. 

More than anything, tell a story, be tender, humorous, grotesque, nobody is paying you, so feel free to add, subtract and exaggerate. Give in to your inner cartoonist (carefully) or your inner novelist. Make notes, add stains, you are making art no documenting immigrants or taking the census. Have fun.
Can you find the dog? 

09 May 2015

Our day of hero worship: Alexander McQueen and Singer Sargent.

Victoria & Albert Courtyard. watercolor

Today we decided to visit the spectacular Alexander McQueen exhibition at the Victoria&Albert Museum:"Savage Beauty". This is without a doubt the exhibition of the year in London where it returned after a successful run at the Met in New York. Ever since museums discovered fashion sells tickets, they have had a field day ordering mannequins and displaying the likes of Gaultier, Yves St Laurent, Vivienne Westwood and many others. Fashion allows for theatrical displays, multimedia madness and colourful crowds.

I like fashion, I think it's cool but it  doesn't keep  me awake at night.  I certainly subscribe to the idea that 99% of it is either bonkers, or just silly. In short, I didn't expect an impact. It did actually have one but  not because of McQueen's tragic death or anything particularly deep about the guy. It was just very well done. As a matter of fact the least theatrical of all rooms, the second, was the one that got my wheels whirring. These are my impressions about the show and the clothes themselves:

Very briefly, the exhibit follows a chronological scheme with every new room evoking the environment of McQueens' work and runway spaces at that stage of his career. The first room, for example, displays the low budget designs of a young taxi driver's son with lots of creativity. The environment is industrial-warehouse and the soundtrack -yes, fashion shows have soundtracks- is that of a muffled rave. His designs are inspired by the street, the club-scene, movies and very much by London. McQueen's work shows consistency from his very first stitch not only formally but also from a narrative point of view. He is very much an English designer down to his fetishism of birds, Hitchcock anyone?

The second room shows his MA project as well as his apprenticeship work in Savile Rd. and other places including a workshop that made uniforms. Flawless tailoring takes over. McQueen proves here that to break the rules, you need to know them. The construction of the suits and dresses is original, playful, almost like origami in some cases...one can sense the confidence of a craft well absorbed and ready for the jump into art.

 So what's a young gay guy to do with all that power under his scissors. The next room is invaded by romanticism and Gothic influences, it's operatic and baroque, barely edited.There is a sexuality and a power to it no doubt but except for a few details and signature forms, it seems it all has been done before. I like that he is deliberate in his avoidance of women and girls as naive or soft. These are some dark queens,  full of armor and sharp edges while wonderfully feminine. He accelerates the appropriation of elements from other arts with prints, plumage and embroidery .

Then begins a series of juxtapositions, the first one being the natural world versus man. McQueen seems to have had a very keen sense of the fragility of life and its savagery. The environment is cavernous and simulates a crypt made of bones and skulls.  I believe along with  the curators that London is essentially where this idea of the fragility and combat of life is materialized. It's an anarchic place at its core. The design becomes bold and tribal. The materials start to expand into the unheard: hair, horns, skulls,polyester. Had he lived longer, McQueen would surely have won an Oscar at some point.
"As a place of inspiration, Britain is the best in the world. You are inspired by the anarchy in the country"

With the next rooms, we are definitely in the presence of a master designer. He draws inspiration from his Scottish roots to create the "Widows of Culloden" and the show forcefully pairs the seductive tartans against the fairytale designs of "The girl that lived in a tree" (2008) collection which is inspired by Victorian and romantic English designs. I have no doubt that McQueen felt and loved his Scottish heritage very deeply and that he created a sort of indictment of ancient genocides. However, anybody that thinks for a minute that 'fashion cares' is delusional. Even the designer himself was aware of the inherent contradiction of creating excess while advocating a return to less consumerism, luxury while using cheap materials and so on.  From here on, AMQ seems to be "in search of a cause" but it is mostly just a thin thread to hold together his own ideas avalanche.

As if aware of the risk of a flood of photographers (and sketchers) or worse, selfie-stick holders, snapping pics is strictly forbidden. The guards enforcing this rule are polite but unlike  in any other exhibits, they are not distracted students or bored to tears matrons. These are tall strapping hawks. Hence no pics. Well, one. My husband has seen the show three times already -thanks god for that V&A membership! and he won't be deterred.

The middle room is amazingly built as a giant curio cabinet holding hats, corsets, bonnets and all kinds of magnificent shoes  and jewelry. Here we see the collaboration between AMQ and other designers of accessories like milliner Phillip Tracey or jewel designer Shauna Leane. He teamed up with an ever increasing set of trades like taxidermists, wood carvers and even 3d printers (is that a job yet?) The designs in this room put to shame most contemporary artists and sculptors, each one a   tastefully displayed piece, a masterwork in its own right.Videos of his runway parades are projected now full throttle. I think my favorite piece must have been a top made entirely of mussel shells. The idea alone is much better than the result but when you learn to appreciate the jasper beauty of a humble mussel, well , I sympathize with a designer that wants you to wear it. I liked it better than the coral peacock and the bird of paradise - the whole bird- bonnet owned by some countess Bismark or other.

In the middle of the cabinet of curiosities room, a dress spray painted by robots.  In the next room, a holographic Kate Moss frolics midair in her billowing wedding dress like a mermaid in a dark and pyramidal fishbowl.

 The next few rooms are dedicated to his take on the Western versus Eastern styles with some breathtaking kimonos and surprising combination of what by now are McQueen signature ingredients: powerful shoulder pads, elongated bodies by means of lowering the waistlines to the upper thighs, shrouded shoulders, swollen hips, magnificent hats and shoes, etc.. . If you are in London, the Tate gallery is simultaneously  exhibiting some photographs on the creation of his "Horn of Plenty" show. It's worth taking a look (and you can take a peek at Tracy Emin's putrid bed  and draw your own conclusions about art, life and depression as a creative force, or something.

The exhibit draws to a conclusion with the last show before his untimely death - he hanged himself  and let's face it, he must have been exhausted living in "his" world and allowed to roam it. "Plato's Atlantis" is about a world submerged by global warming where apparently we have evolved into incredibly chic survivors, drowned but stylish nevertheless. His animal prints and slick designs seem a lot more wearable all of a sudden. His shapes seem to arrive at a resting state, much more edited, hinted.
In conclusion: A show any artist of any discipline would enjoy. A temple to appropriately worship at the (silly or not, your choice) altar of fashion and romantic notions of genius. There is no doubt in my mind that MacQueen was an artist and I took that with me. The rest is frothing, oohing and aahing about how AMQ was "deep" and  general celebitching . Go see it.

On a side note. Another concurrent show at the V&A is called "What is luxury". It was interesting as dessert to reflect on McQueen and the relevance of the superficial, unique, precise and just plain expensive. Here is a lamp made of tiny bronze wires and dandelion seed heads harvested before their dispersion and assembled together with the addition of tiny lights that require a sort of wireless wiring to glow. Fancy. The conclusion of the show seemed to be that the real luxury of our times is TIME itself. Couldn't agree more.

Since we were in Chelsea and we were not done celebrating art deities, we decided to get to know that neighborhood in London where summer is a verb, Chelsea and pay a visit/stalk Mr. Sargent's ghost. Chelsea is lovely, a little bubble of everything-is-right-with-the-world. We moxie'd over to see the old digs and studio of boy-genius J.S. Sargent this time. His house on 31-33 Tite St., a stone's throw from the Thames, was surrounded by scaffolding except for number 31. This was the studio. Sargent bought number 33 as his residence but also bought 31 to create his workspace  and he labored here for 25 years until his death.  The street has blue plaques galore including Oscar Wilde's. So I leave this post with me looking smug and fat at Mr. Sargent's door.

31 Tite Street. Sargen'ts studio.

07 May 2015

William Morris, The Avengers and collective art.

This entry is a rambling reflection on the nature of "collective art" -not to be confused with "art collectives", very different and a whole bundle of separate trouble-. It was prompted by a visit to one of the museums dedicated to William Morris in London, a trip to the multiplex to watch that visual effects mishmash that is "Avengers, Age of Ultron" and some troubles I had with my contract back in February. I'll throw in the recent experiment that the Dulwich Gallery conducted in which they hid a Chinese-made reproduction  of a Fragonard original and asked patrons to find the copy in the museum among all the other paintings. Only 11% recognized the copy as such!
WilliamMorris Museum, Walthamstow. watercolor
It is sort of a given that an artist has a vision, a signature or style that is unique and can't be reproduced. This notion wasn't always widely accepted. For centuries, artists toiled as anonymous craftsmen conforming to a model and only rarely stepping out out to be "original". Artists created wondrous cathedrals and beautiful scrolls after lengthy apprenticeships and many years of imitative practice. Only during the Renaissance did we start to seek individual uniqueness in Western art. The fever pitch of artistic exceptionalism occurred during the Romantic period when grabbing a pen or brush with some merit transformed poets and painters into divine lightning rods. It was also at this time that craft gave way to individual expression as the most sought out characteristic in a work of art. We are still suffering the aftermath of that. No artist  can be satisfied today if something doesn't have his/her personal touch. A craftsman might enjoy and be rightfully proud of a well made shoe but wherever the word "art" is uttered, we expect to see something distinct, not just a well made product.

St Cecilia stained glass window. W. Morris workshop.
Being a computer artist by day (and a desperate artist by night and on weekends), i couldn't help but notice the similarities between the computer graphics artists of today and the medieval manuscript illustrators or Morris weavers and printers of yesteryear. CG artists, like their more traditional counterparts, have a client to satisfy, deadlines and quality controls. As any traditional artist should do, they breathe their craft day and night. Even those whose job is to replicate photo-real images or follow the art director's commands to the letter are bona-fide artists constantly being diminished by people who think computers do all the work ...which is like saying Word Perfect wrote the Harry Potter books and some recent legislation. And yet, he final product is as anonymous as the lengthy list of credits at the end,  that wall to the fallen that scrolls on the screen at full speed  and  where noone can find their name. The personality in movies is better left to the actors and the directors and that's fine.

On a side note: I've grown wary of producers and other "visionaries"  filling their mouths with the word "artist" to address overworked employees and animators. It is a cheap means of flattery. It comes attached to implicit demands for shorter deadlines and weekend work . It challenges employees to live up to their calling and shut up because a "true artist" would demand nothing but relentless devotion to the project beyond any  concerns for family or health.

If they ever  use  the term "family" to address their crew, then it's time to head running for the doors. Family members don't get laid off.
Artwork for Avengers, by ILM. Beautiful imagery in a really dumb movie.

May be this is why it is sometimes difficult to find satisfaction in a job that demands a well crafted product, not necessarily a personal one. There are many , many, similar or worse jobs out there but as someone trying to interact with the world as an artist, "well made" or "technically proficient" might not be enough. I know I'll get in trouble for this but in some cases it might not even be necessary. Programmers and technicians, on the other hand, can develop their creativity to their full potential making cg movies because their "product" is rarely the film itself but the technical achievement that made it possible. The film itself could be two hours of beautifully simulated liquids and flying debris and that would be great. Wait, isn't that what we normally get? I'll admit personal limitations play a role in this as well when trying to reach artistic goals. .

It is possible that the artists and craftsmen employed by William Morris felt the same way. W.M. was an utterly interesting socialist and artist who advocated a return to craft and simplicity and whose clients were invariably wealthy since they were the only ones able to afford his designs. His friend Burne-Jones contributed numerous designs that were transformed into tapestries, tiles and stained glass. But his workers might not have been the happiest bunch even though they were not too bad off compared with other workers inhaling fumes and cotton dust in Victorian London. Their products were glorious but did they think of themselves as artists? Did it matter? Self-realization is a recent phenomenon after all.

William Morris bust

I wonder if the Chinese copyist that painted the oil commissioned by the Dulwich gallery to entice patrons to test their nose for fakes (attendance increased four fold during the challenge) felt any artistic satisfaction beyond the production of a decent copy. Seeing the two pieces side by side, it is obvious the Chinese piece lacks a lot of the subtle transparencies and mystery of the original. Yet only 1 in every ten visitors found the fake among all the paintings in the gallery. 3 out every 100 though a portrait of a lady by Rubens was the fake piece shuffled among the priceless artworks.

The true Fragonard.

Chinese copy commissioned by the gallery from a company that mass produces such copies.

Two observers compare the copy and the original now placed side by side.

Does a weaver have time or even want to weave a single napkin for himself after 9 hours at the loom? My conclusion because I need to make up one is that for any artistic satisfaction to occur, most effort should be poured into that napkin, personal projects of any kind, no matter how small or unmarketable , drawings, photos, animated shorts, models.. I should have followed that advice myself in regards to my own career. Even when studios stipulate in their contracts that they own every dream and doodle, nobody gets paid enough to give away the art they create outside work, their mark in the world.

12 February 2015

Armin Hansen

As my birthday treat, I visited the Armin Hansen exhibit at the Pasadena California Art Museum today. I was a bit underwhelmed so I won't elaborate too much. I think the main quality of a Hansen painting could be its vigor. Sweeping, thick application, no regard for superfluous detail, abstract playfulness. It mostly ends there. His favorite subject matter being the sea and the men that toil in it, that masculine quality suits his artwork very well.

Hansen was the son of an artists and left for Germany when he was 20 to study art. For five years he devoted himself to paint european landscapes in Belgium and other places. He ended up in Monterrey when this town was but a small fishing village. You can read more about his life here.

Sometimes, his paintings reach great atmospheric feel. Like this "Stranded" piece where the figures in the foreground seem minuscule against the sea engulfing their ship. But even in this painting we can observe his lackluster handling of negative space in the rock silhouettes.

"Stranded" oil on canvas
For a painter that devoted most of his career to the sea, I must say that it was the rare piece that managed to depict the ocean as water-like. Thick, flat application, blocks of random color and jigsaw reflections make the waves look like slabs of concrete crushing against each other rather than a volume of moving swelling liquid forces.
The skies never reflect in the ocean and are often heavier and more belabored than the sea below.

His treatment of the human form is quite cartoonish and coarse as well. Most figures have bow shaped legs and prominent chins. Popeye the sailor would fit right in. Below is an example of a portrait of seamen. We see again the sad negative space and the block/mass of faces blending into a whole.  I took some awful pictures, I'll admit that much. 

Monterrey seamen. Observe the uninteresting negative space.
I said I wouldn't elaborate too much but I have to mention my least favorite pieces: his rodeo, western oils. Some of them have few redeeming qualities besides the abstract and, again, vigorous, handling of paint. You can see them using google.

This doesn't mean he is always off. One of my favorite pieces had a beautiful dynamic and "wet" feel to it. It was the"Iceland Fishing Boat".  His etchings and high-contrast pieces of boats being rescued and Monterrey scenes were also quite fascinating and salty.

"Iceland Fishing Boat"
The exhibition at PMCA mentioned how he was influenced by Ignacio Zuloaga. Sadly, there were no samples of Zuloaga's artwork in the room, not even photographs. Ignacio Zuloaga was a spanish painter of uneven quality. He was popularized in the US through a traveling exhibit that landed in San Francisco where Armin saw it. As a result of this show, Hansen enlarged his scope and cretaed some of his most remarkable pieces. Like this"Fishermen of the reef".

Ignacio Zuloaga. "Hombres del Pais Vasco"
In conclusion: The exhibition is definitely worth a visit. Armin Hansen might not be my favorite painter but I took away some valuable lessons in boldness and, well....vigor.

09 December 2014

Notes on Turner

You know you have arrived when a world-renowned gallery like the Tate Britain decides to make a retrospective of your artwork and even hangs the canvases you hadn't even started.  That's Turner for you and that's the level of esteem he achieved not only in England but around the globe. That those unfinished canvases had already launched a decade long race among art critics to label them as the precursors of abstraction among other things is another story. ...isn't all landscape an abstraction?

About the movie...I liked the photography quite a bit, and the acting. But I did hate the premise the director shoved down our throats. Yes, Turner was probably just a "bloke" but I doubt he was a wild grunting beast as well.
The show at the Tate: "Late Turner"focuses on  the master's twilight years.  If I was expecting a few doodles scrawled with  a trembling pulse at the onset of dementia (I wasn't), I got sore feet to prove that such an assumption would be dead wrong. This show consists of room after room of masterworks as if the old JWM was on something, no diminishing powers until the very end when his eyesight began to fail.

As a successful, economically well-off and respected master at this last stage of his life, Turner after sixty was doing pretty much whatever the hell he wanted: traveling like a maniac, filling notebook after notebook of sketches and ideas, experimenting with a new blue here, a new format there, a new subject everywhere, cavorting with a Mrs Booth in Margate and getting offered money by patrons and disparaging remarks from the queen in equal parts.  I only wish to have an older age like he did. Then again, he had a very early start in the path to success -he was a bit of a prodigy actually-  and becoming Britain's painter par excellence. 

Oh, you sketch too? That's cute. Some of Turner's notebooks.
Let's mention the abundant notebooks. Turner might have liked an IPhone.  His itineraries cover practically all of Europe from Denmark to Italy, with trips to Switzerland, Germany and France in between. One wonders about the state of roads and lodging in those times. And weren't Victorians practically dead at sixty with all that bad hygiene, rotten teeth, STD's  and stuff?...not this one!.   Thick with landscape compositions and notes, Turner's sketchbooks contain many thousands of studies. He used all kinds of formats and purchased notebooks as he ran out, sometimes even notebooks meant for something else like accounting sheets. He dyed the pages with soot or tobacco or had them dyed. He drew with pencil most of the time but used watercolor and other opaque mediums liberally.  The purpose of a lot of this doodling  and travel was so that he later could produce engravings which did very well in the market. He also derived watercolors and some oil paintings came out of it as well. But it wasn't ALL business, he drew  figures, clouds, interiors  and even some erotic  but not too titillating sketches.

"Blue Rigi, Sunset" watercolor

 Most students of the master point out how Turner wanted to immerse himself in nature and optics and understand light and storms to the point of tying himself to a boat's mast  to experience a gale from inside... That sounds like those weathermen on TV that just have to report while being wet and pummeled by hurricanes to "show" us how it really is. I think that story might be an exaggeration but I haven't read on it. yes, he probably had a keen interest in natural phenomena but he was no scientist. Like with Leonardo da Vinci and many others, people insist in ascribing "scientific" interests to Turner and what are nothing but his very poetic observations.

BTW:  I've often rejected the idea of Leonardo as scientist.  Opening a corpse or studying the flight of birds, engineering complex (and failed) machines and advancing theories about the presence of sea shells on mountains or tides being the result of the Earth breathing demonstrate an open poetic mind, an observant mind, not a disciplined scientific approach. No matter how much of a prerequisite an open mind might be to be a scientist, both Turner and Leo would flunk the maths test.

Unless the weatherman is wet, nothing is really happening.

 To me, Turner was a concept artist. He painted mostly imaginary things  and titled them in ways that would make a Hollywood executive run for cover.  The titles sound long and over-budget: "The fleet departs, the queen of Sheba and her monkey say farewell to a thousand eunuchs."  (I made that one up) or more down to earth: "Crew of a Whaling ship burns blubber to extricate themselves from the polar ice".  He was re-creating events that suited his imagination, not trying to render those events accurately. He did several paintings of the burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons for example. They are all dramatic and glow beautifully but their excess is what triggers the awe caused by the magnitude of the real thing, not their accuracy.

Burning of the houses of Parliament. 1835

He had a keen eye for accuracy nevertheless. Turner could do detail and paint a cathedral with the precision of a surveyor if he wanted to. But he was a painter's painter.  His main focus besides selling prints seems to have been the potential of paint to create the moods and light present in nature, by itself and with but a fleeting suggestion of the actual scenery. On a side note, some people  say that the pervasive yellow atmosphere of his paintings was prompted by ash in the air from a volcanic eruption. Can't blame varnish for that one apparently.

This is a sketch from a younger Turner, he could do detail.

A watercolor of a dangerously dangling bridge in the Alps.
 I took a  (bad) picture of this somewhat nocturnal sketch because it was the one that looked to me like the work of a modern concept artist at, say, a film studio.  It's a small idea of a fabulous environment with turquoise domes and a tower that exits the frame.  Of course I scribbled the title in some paper I ended up throwing away.

Add caption

When it comes to full-fledged oil paintings, Turner seems to have continued the experimenting.  His paintings are often painted and repainted, almost as in a continuous state of flux. Sometimes decades pass between re-paints.

Talking about flux, the sea had a great appeal to the artist and I think his whaling pictures were my biggest revelation personally because they suggest so much without really nailing anything down. One could say they are "abstract" except what they are trying to convey  is still  atmospheric and narrative. In that vein, I do love the "Sunrise with sea monsters" I post below. There's really nothing but those lurking eyes and grotesque shapes.

Let's mention here two knock-outs like "Burial at Sea" and the acclaimed favorite of his:    "Fighting Temeraire".   

A subject that comes up very often is the modernism of Turner. Rob Adams wrote a beautiful article about it here. Like him, I am more ambivalent than critics on this matter.

 Turner was in fact a modern painter very much in touch with progress. He didn't shy away from new pigments or techniques  (there are some examples of a particular chemical blue pigment in the show). He depicted a new world coming full speed ahead from behind the fogs/smogs of the Industrial Revolution. Current events like the aforementioned Parliament burning interested him. So did other subjects like slavery and the power and the  threat/thrill  of steam power and industrialization. But Turner is firmly planted in Romanticism, that period in which all art forms dissolved in a rapture of movement and emotion, sometimes dark.  His art is not abstract for the sake of abstraction, he is always referencing something no matter how diffuse.

-This idea of dissolution, by the way, is beautifully embodied by a building like the late Crystal Palace, an environment within a bubble of cast iron and glass, it's interior blending with the outside by protective but transparent walls.  Like that building, Turner's paintings might be "open" but still refer to a narration, a representation of something more specific than a mood. He very rarely leaves a painting unpopulated or untitled, no matter how ghostly the figures or how obtuse the title.

Arguably his most forward looking and famous piece "Rain, Steam and Speed, The Great Western Railway"

Turner was a great painter and a pioneer. To insist in his modernity reveals a very linear vision of Western art where all movements feed but "overtake" the previous ones. Besides where technical advances create change, most art movements have a more pendular swing to them.  Like all masters, Turner possesses permanent qualities as valid today as when he painted his last works. Whether this qualities pioneer, foresee or introduce the future, is but a minimal aspect of their appeal in my opinion.

29 November 2014

Notes on Constable

This  entry was prompted by a Rob Adam's  blog entry . His article is of a similar nature.  After visiting the V&A Constable exhibition in London he reevaluates our regard for John Constable. His contention,  if I'm allowed to paraphrase and which he exposes very eloquently, is that Constable was a painter unduly elevated to the level of a, say, J.W.M Turner by critics that go on parroting what other critics have said before them instead of taking a new hard look at the actual art in front of them.

After reading Rob's  blog -and being better acquainted  with Constable's work now that I've seen  the show at the Huntington in San Marino and the V&A in London today- I wanted to clarify my thoughts on this proto-impressionist's standing, oh and gush about his bravura brushstroke and thick handling.

I have to concur that Constable is not at the level of Turner but he is not that far behind despite the fact that both painters ,who were rivals in life, have been made into the poster children  of the Victorian landscape. The exhibition had some pieces by contemporaries of Constable and a few were quite good but in my view Constable is deservedly lifted a bit above. He shares with Turner the romantic handling of the brush, chaotic at times, heavy handed often and almost abstract in the pursuit of movement and light.

My first gut reaction after seeing the show: there is much to love in Constable. The full size massive study for "The leaping horse" was breathtaking. Notice I said the "study". The final painting was quite bland in my opinion. In the study, the cloying impasto lends an enormous energy to the main figure of the rider  that seems to be pulling away from the dark soil. The startled horse is clearly the muscular center.  The sky seems a bit heavy and troweled . How much of my liking this painting  is due to my biased view as a 21st century observer...i can't tell.

Jump to the finished piece and,voila, Constable has placed the willow stump smack in the middle paralyzing everything and quartering the picture. It seems he wants to open the right side to the view but I think it actually just looks oddly static and contrived all of a sudden. The river area is now a band of specks and  rendered details below the bridge, a sort of "a below the ground" cut-out storage. The barge in the final work competes with the horse for attention. The sky is probably the only thing that has improved in the final piece by receding and becoming more airy.

"Leaping Horse", study"
"The Leaping Horse". John Constable.

But but but, as I was saying, there is much to love in Constable. I am talking mostly about his outdoor studies. Constable was a pioneer of the outdoor sketches even though he was not the first one to attempt them. He carefully made notations about clouds and skies, kept pocket books full of drawings and generally devoted himself to capture transient moments. He did many close studies of buildings, plants, animals  and man-made objects. One of my favorite studies had to be this elm trunk. In the exhibition, it was displayed between two very similar studies by Lorain and Lucien Freud.

"Study of foliage"

His studies done in canvas shreds, wood planks and paper are really  good and they show a keen appreciation for nature. However, his subject matter, unlike that of Turner's, is very limited and he is clearly uncomfortable with grander themes.

So what, if anything, would make Constable step down a few notches from the pedestal he has been placed by art historians? Well, I think he is still one of the best landscape painters of his time and I am in no position to un-seat him but he is safely dead and indifferent to my musing so here are some thoughts:

His paintings often lack focus, especially the finished ones. This is a tough one because nobody says a painting has to absolutely have a focus but Constable seemed to have a chronic need to populate every bit of landscape with figures or elements in his finished pieces. Chicken, donkey, boy, dog, chicken, peasant girl, horse, birds....oh, another chicken! nah, water hens.  This creates tiny accents all across that distract and muddle the otherwise perfectly nice landscapes. He also has a strange propensity to highlight every bit which almost feels like the paintings are seen through a snowstorm of specks.

Here is a painting that is just adorable despite, or may be because of  all the bits of business in it.
"Cottage in the cornfields" The photo doesnt do it justice but you still can see the two butterflies, can't you?

Here are two nice paintings . The study for "The cornfields" is lovely. The final piece is not bad either but he has added a flock of sheep, a kid getting a serious case of cholera (ok, I'm extrapolating), a dog and two women. It's starting to feel crowded and the kid seems a bit odd. In the final piece, there is so much going on around the barge  with all the little "nativity figures" that  it seems clear  the artist  is not convinced the beautiful -but somewhat technical- rendition of the boat will be sufficient to deliver the painting.

"Study for the cornfields"

"The cornfields"

"Boat Building Near Flatford Mill"

And then there's this crazy mess...

"Opening of the Waterloo Bridge"

 Clumsy perspective. Constable didn't like perspective, I can tell. But not because he didn't care. His studies and copies of  Paolo Ucello make it perfectly clear he cared. A lot of his church towers seem tilted, his ponds and rivers often "climb" beyond reason  and he favors compositions that act as "open windows" and layered distant vistas over anything too architectural or layered. There are quite a lot of examples of this. He also liked to put things in the middle of his paintings, again, that is not an error per se but it makes things a bit static and just why?.

On a side note ..but somewhat related,,  his tendency to mismatch reflections. I know, I know, it is not essential to be accurate but in almost every Branch Hill pond study and painting the sky light  wasn't symmetrically mirrored. I know people could find physical explanations and the offset is more noticeable in some cases than others  but it drove me bonkers.

"Branch Hill pond" with the sun mirrored slightly off

Tortured compositions. Constable based many oh his compositions on Lorain, Poussin, Ruisdael and other masters he studied through his extensive collection of prints. On his own however, he either flatly reproduced  what was in front of him or didn't seem to know where to place things and ended up scattering elements of equal importance all over, creating tortured compositions or placing things smack in the middle.

I cannot really comment  on his sense of color since  I suspect many  pigments have probably faded or have been altered by time.  

Here is another composition. This is a finished piece probably started in the field with the aid of  a tracing frame. It basically portrays an "accurate view". It is competent, pleasant but a bit blah,  almost just decorative. If it wasn't Constable, would you have stopped to look at it?

"Watermeadows near Salisbury"

Would have been my favorite painting of the show (again, the photo is not nearly as impressive as the real thing) except for that TRIANGLE on the sky. Couldn't he at least have interrupted the straight line by chopping a few branches? The bottom of this painting was out of this world beautiful!
"The Path to Church"

In conclusion, Constable was a great painter that seems to have certainly hit some highs and elicited a great response in the public. All masters make mistakes or produce substandard work from time to time. Should abundance of the substandard work take away from the merits of the highlights or is it the payment in the from of labor that every master must pay?

Study of tree trunks. Sweet... but a bit more love in that figure?