It’s time to get real

    I turned on Late Review after Friday’s Newsnight and was confronted by a coven of ecstatic critics drooling in unison over the Tate show. All week long, various newspaper columnists strayed off their normal turf to praise the event. Even Brian Sewell in the Evening Standard liked it, and Brian doesn’t like anything.

    So, mindful of my critical duties, and knowing how Sunday Times readers expect, quite rightly, to be kept abreast of the tide’s flow, not its ebb, I scuttled off to Tate Britain a week after everyone else, feeling a tad sheepish and expecting belatedly to join the ranks of the bowled-over. Instead, I found myself in the presence of a profoundly overpraised artist, being observed from a gimmicky angle, in a gimmicky show that does not achieve a full picture of John Constable.

    Constable: The Great Landscapes sets out to be simultaneously about the public Constable and the private one, and fails, unsurprisingly, to reconcile the two. They really are very different creatures. For the first time ever, all of Constable’s largest exhibition pictures, the paintings with which he sought most obviously to make his mark at the Royal Academy, his famous “six-footers”, have been brought together in a bunch and shown alongside the full-size preparatory sketches that preceded them. So, we have The Hay Wain here, and the sketch for it; The Leaping Horse, and its sketch. And so on.

    Much is made of this unique opportunity to compare and contrast the sketches with the finished paintings. Indeed, from the hype preceding this unveiling, you would have thought that no painter had ever done a sketch before. In fact, they almost all do. The only painter I know of who did not make sketches was Caravaggio. Constable is marginally different from most in producing a full-size sketch as well as lots of smaller ones. But the main point of his sketches remains the main point of everyone else’s sketches, which is to work things out in preparation for a final painting. The absurd fetishising of this process that goes on in Constable: The Great Landscapes is typical of the general loss of perspective he seems to prompt.

    The time has surely come to get real about him. The fact is, Constable was no Turner. Where Turner was a landscapist of true genius, a fiery and tremendous celebrator of nature’s drama and power and thrust, Constable was a moderately talented landscape lightweight whose most distinctive and important attribute was that he was absolutely in tune with the suburban preferences of the English psyche. He was the artistic equivalent of a nice cup of tea. And if the Tate’s show proves anything, it proves that his default mode — that sunny bank-holiday averageness he strove for so determinedly in his six-footers — strikes as many chords as it does precisely because it is so imprecise.

    For example, if you adore Constable, and you adore his most celebrated painting, The Hay Wain, you should be able to answer a simple question about it. What time of day does the painting record? It’s probably the most famous landscape in British art. Every kid in every nursery has copied it. So, I repeat: what time of day does Constable show us in The Hay Wain? Simple question. Impossible to answer.

    I couldn’t answer it standing in front of the actual Hay Wain in the middle of Tate Britain’s confrontation between the painting and its sketch. I can’t answer it now, staring at a reproduction in the catalogue. The best guess I can make is that it shows us some time in the afternoon. That’s when most parts of the painting seem to be set. The little dog at the front is casting a shadow of the kind you would see at about 2pm, when the sun is high. But the dark foreground of the river bank on the right, or the gloomy bay of water beyond the cottage, seem to belong to another part of the day altogether. It could be late evening under the cottage, and early morning on the riverbank. It’s all so vague.

    Does this matter? Obviously not to a lot of people. The fact that The Hay Wain is set in a temporal no man’s land of unspecific diurnal and climatic conditions has not affected its popularity, or the affection people feel towards it. The pleasant sensation of an English summer’s day is enough for most. But for the harder-hearted, like me, for those who trust in the landscape painter’s special allegiance to reality and who believe that the truth is particularly important in landscape, it does matter.

    You can set your clock by a Monet. A Van Gogh view of Arles will always be observed when the sun is at its fiercest. A Turner seascape is caught at the fraction of a second when the wave is at its highest. But all the big and dozy views of the River Stour at the centre of Tate Britain’s parade seem to have been encountered on exactly the same sunny weekend in Suffolk, even though they were actually painted between 1819 and 1825. Since all of them show places Constable knew really well, because they could all be found a few hundred yards from his father’s mill, this determination to generalise is especially puzzling.

    Later on in the Tate’s journey, when Constable starts exploring other parts of Britain and the darknesses begin to creep in, when miraculously symmetrical rainbows appear over Salisbury Cathedral, when Hadleigh Castle grows so darkly gothic on its outcrop, the suspicion that he was painting states of mind all along, rather than actual places, becomes a certainty.

    I’m talking, of course, about the full-size finished paintings, not the preparatory sketches that preceded them. The sketches are exactly what you would expect them to be — freer, coarser, livelier, greyer. They tend to feature cloudier days than the six-footers, and are therefore more reliable. This, surely, is the main Constable quandary. In his sketches, he trusted entirely to his eyes and showed us what was there, which was radical of him. But the sketches were never actually intended for public consumption. Constable himself believed fervently, and even fanatically, that he must be judged on his six-footers. In his mind, the big, finished paintings constituted his output. So, in putting on this show, and finally bringing the sketches together with the six-footers, Tate Britain has gone against his specific wishes.

    My view remains that we should respect the painter’s ambitions for himself and judge him on his six-footers. Although it has become a critical commonplace to insist that Constable does not deserve to be plastered all over so many chocolate boxes and greetings cards, this particular exhibition suggests that these are exactly the places he should be plastered. Instead of willing him to be a painterly radical and a landscape revolutionary, we should accept that he really was a pleasant painter of the view from the retirement home, or the centre spread in the property supplement.