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Why Constable is pants.

As mentioned before, I've just been round the Royal Albert Memorial Museum's current bunch of shows.

The Pond is a series of photographs illustrating the regeneration and adaptation of a pond on the outskirts of Exeter. This is a beautiful sequence of changes, finding the aesthetic in abandoned rusty farm machinery, old boats and the frozen surfaces in winter. The reclamation of the pond seemed to move in two stages: first it was cleaned up from an environmental point of view so that natural growth overtakes the manmade decay; then you notice that fencing and turf are appearing, with the suggest of nature being made to conform with health and safety. Overall a fascinating sequence of change - there was a moment where I had to go back and check that the trees which looked so startlingly new in the first Spring image were there in skeletal form in the winter images.

The Shell poster collection is another series, this time of the adverting images used by Shell in the 30s and 40s to promote the concept of tourism by car. The show itself is on tour, which adds a certain neat charm to the idea. It's hard not to notice the layers of nostalgia invoked here: the posters deliberately evoke a land with no cars, with very few people and often show ruins rather than complete buildings and the posters are themselves evocative of an age in which motoring must have actually been fun as opposed to the grinding tedium of the M25 today. I'm a bit of a sucker for 1930s graphic design anyway: there's a boldness to it, a lack of fear. You can't imagine advertising being this messily stylised now. Then again, the militant pedestrian in me mutters that it was the effectiveness of this which has led to the modern dependence on the car for transport.

Navigating Stevenson is an exhibition of digital art over which I am highly ambivalent. As usual, that means it's the room I spent the longest in. The works take photographs from Robert Louis Stevenson's effects and create huge digital treatments of them. The works are highly elusive. Seen obliquely, or from the far side of the space, the deep perfection of the colour treatment - each one being made up of tones of a single colour - is arresting. Yet up close the works lose cohesion and instead what catches the attention is the use of reflections and lines. One in particular reminds me of nothing more than some Duran Duran cover art from 1984. Amidst the artworks are pieces of bark cloth and other artifacts from the islands. Ultimately, this fails to raise any questions, beyond a mild curiosity about seeing the actual photographs on which it is based. I always distrust shows in which you have to reach for the catalogue to gain anything meaningful.

cross at Chagford Finally, In Nature's Instant, or, why I think Constable is pants. Yes, finally. It's quite noticeable all the exhibitions connect together notions of nature, travel and/or locality. This final exhibition is of landscape painting. The one here, Cross at Chagford, is the only one in the entire room that I found even remotely interesting. It's not that I am anti-representational in my art preferences but if I'm going to look at paintings, then I want them to be of nature not of landscapes.

Monet, for all his Athena-print populism, paints a nature in which you can sense the heat rising from the haystacks or the flutter of the breeze over the lily pond (anyone who thinks the lily paintings are entirely naff should visit the chamber in L'Orangerie in Paris in which you are submerged by them - you can sense a power to them that they lack in their twee reproductions). Turner, well, I could stare at Turner's seascapes for hours. Back when the National Gallery had a room containing two giant Turner canvasses (here's one of them, and another) and two giant Constable canvasses, I used to visit regularly and sit with my back to Constable (like this one).

There's too much specificality to Constable and his ilk, an attempt to recreate an ordered view. This is the rural idyll controlled. There was a documentary a few years ago which demonstrated how he had rearranged elements of actual locations in order to better suit his requirements. It's unlikely to be a coincidence that Constable painted his cleaned up landscapes at the time the land itself was being regulated and brought under control by the Enclosures Acts. Constables most famous works are from the 1810s/1820s and the General Enclosure Act was passed in 1801*. It's also not a coincidence that the Romantics - who celebrated the sublime beauty of Nature as well as knocking up their sisters and throwing themselves into lakes - emerged as a movement in this same period. Constable, and all the followers of him with their hard-working peasants in empty mannered spaces where even the sheep seem to have a specific place, isn't reflecting nature-as-is but nature-as-ought-to-be. Not to mention the fact the brushwork is pedestrian, the use of colours decidedly limited and unimaginative and the subject matter sub-Claudean (and at least Claude could paint trees).

BTW, that National Gallery site is fantastic - I could get lost navigating its collections all night.

*this explains why I did history of art, design and film - you also got to learn political and social histories...

Posted @ 10:25 pm on Wednesday, May 26, 2004
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