From Constable's Cornfield at the National Gallery to Abstract Art in the Twentieth Century at New York's Guggenheim, Norbert Lynton considers English views of artby / April 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in April 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
If the French, being an intellectual people, have a certain idea of France, the English have a picture-a picture from which much of the ugliness and squalor of modernity has been eliminated.”
My text comes from the Trevor Phillips/Peregrine Worsthorne debate in Prospect (March) about Englishness and the problems and benefits brought to it by non-Englishers in the woodpile. Phillips thought Worsthorne was being “slippery in suggesting that Englishness rests in some indefinable romantic picture.” It so happens that the National Gallery’s At Home with Constable’s Cornfield exhibition (until 21st April) pre-empts the discussion, suggesting Worsthorne is right and providing Phillips with the romantic picture he was questioning. It surrounds Constable’s painting with a host of copies and imitations, all made in pursuit of Englishness.
Constable painted his picture with exceptional deliberation in 1826, when he was nearly 50. He showed it at the Royal Academy that year. No one wanted to buy it then, nor when it was shown in Paris (where Constable met with more admiration than at home), Birmingham and Worcester. So it stayed in his studio until he died in 1837. It was then presented to the National Gallery by a group of subscribers-Wordsworth among them.
Thus an important painting by a disdained and then under-regarded artist has become a national icon. This is the English way. The liberties taken with the picture suggest that the affection bestowed by owners of Cornfield tiles, cigarette cards, or trays, has little to do with looking at the original. In effect, it is the idea of an image rather than the image itself that is cherished. The idea conveys a fantasy of England: at ease, unhurried, when a boy could drink from a stream and corn grew plentifully without chemical fertilisers and an old church joined lively clouds and patches of blue sky in representing a deity smiling upon the rich Englishman in his castle and the poor Englishman at his gate.
Constable had done his very best to make The Cornfield saleable. It is indeed “romantic,” by no means a snapshot-in-oils of a particular scene, but a vision averted from ugliness and squalor, constructed out of bits from various studies. Research has shown how selective much of Constable’s work was-a fantasy of rural bliss from an artist who knew the real world well.
In this instance, he assembled earlier studies and worked in snatches from admired landscape painters-Claude, Gainsborough, Gaspard Poussin-just as clever film-makers today use quotations from Citizen Kane, Fellini or Tarantino. Constable knew some of the details better than his paintings show: the plough is not right, the sheep would have been shorn at this time of the year, and so on. The boy may partly represent himself but echoes Narcissus; there is more than a hint of Virgil’s Georgics about the scene. The Roman empire was never far away from Georgian England.
As exhibited, The Cornfield is nearly swamped by its multifarious offspring, together with photographs of some of the owners and their homes, and with their words quoted on the wall. A professional engraver translated the painting into line and tone with Constable’s approval. Painters have copied it, both amateurs and professionals-some closely, some freely and freshly, some just badly. Tones and colours change towards old master browns or boudoir pastel shades. A horizontal reproduction omits church and donkey, takes the men out of the field, puts the boy back with the sheep and censors the broken gate. But they speak of England-except to one black lady whose circular Cornfield on a plate reminds her of her home in Jamaica.
Whether the original has lost its aura, as Walter Benjamin said it must, is open to question. There it hangs, by no means one of Constable’s most enchanting works, yet solid and honourable; it is paid little honour by its brood. That The Cornfield is taken to represent England involves some degree of self-deception. But then looking at art-as opposed to bird watching and train spotting-is not an English habit. Neither Worsthorne nor Phillips asked whether “England” meant “Britain.” But I mean the English-particularly the educated upper crust which can include individuals from other parts of the UK. The elegant English phrase for being educated is to be “well read.” The printed word is king; art that eludes words by offering neither description, nor narratives that can be matched with words, meets with suspicion and impatience.
That impatience is especially reserved for abstract art. I doubt whether any of our main institutions would want to mount an exhibition of a century of abstract art, for the millennium. We have always had some of the best abstract artists in the world, but they have met with little encouragement at home. Today we are blessed with a number of inventive and lively abstract painters who happen to be women (their gender has a lot to do with it, but it is still impolitic to say so): Bridget Riley, Gillian Ayres, Prunella Clough, Jennifer Durrant, Therese Oulton and others. Clough, now in her mid-70s, and greatly admired by painters, is about to share a big exhibition at the Camden Art Centre of selected works from the last two decades; what she should have is a full retrospective at the Tate and a solid catalogue to record it. We have a long tradition of artists of the Constructive sort, consciously eschewing visual motifs in their work though of course conditioned by visual experience: Victor Pasmore is still working; Kenneth Martin has gone, alas; but others continue and two excellent instances are Malcolm Hughes and Alan Reynolds, now showing at the Annely Juda gallery. Anthony Caro is one of the best sculptors of the century and most of his work has been abstract.
One of the reasons for not attempting a survey exhibition of abstract art is that the field is not easily defined. Mondrian’s compositions of black lines and white or primary-coloured patches, we call abstract. But what if he calls one of them Trafalgar Square? Kandinsky worked recognisable motifs from his own earlier painting into his grandiose “abstracts” of 1912-14. Paul Klee enjoyed giving naturalistic titles to wholly abstract compositions and also annotating the paintings themselves to bring out a serious or jokey reference. Perhaps only the Constructive artists, working from a mathematical or otherwise definably non-visual base, produced truly abstract art. “Concrete” art was the term coined for this by the Swiss artist, designer, and teacher Max Bill, but it never caught on, leaving us only negative terms for the century’s bravest artistic venture: abstract, non-figurative, non-objective, non-representational.
The trouble this lack of definition can cause is well illustrated in the exhibition now filling the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Abstraction in the Twentieth Century. Organised and catalogued by the scholarly Mark Rosenthal, it offers definitions-or at least a rationale in the text it cannot adhere to on the walls. That is forgivable, though he might have spent less time insisting on Kant and Hegel as prophets of abstraction, and given more thought to Mallarm?’s efforts to cleanse language in order to reveal its ancient resonances. Refreshment was the aim, not absolute purity; it was needed so that the great themes of life and death could once again be attempted in art after a century of debasement brought about by the commercialism of the academies.
Rosenthal stresses that the pioneers and practitioners were seldom French; how true this is depends on how narrowly you define abstraction. Some of Picasso’s work qualifies as entirely abstract; some of Matisse’s, too; both are excluded. Much of de Kooning’s work refers to bodies or to landscape; at the Guggenheim he is given star treatment, as is Gerhard Richter, who paints imagery of every sort, from photography-based naturalism to messy abstracts, with determined indifference. Klee is absent but Kandinsky is there in strength; Carl Andre has a lot of space while Joseph Beuys is omitted.
The gallery’s main space is spiral, its radius expanding as one ascends that long slope past sloping walls designed by Frank Lloyd Wright to affront New York and serve no art well. On this occasion the focus narrows as the space broadens, because two thirds of the exhibition, almost all of the coverage of the last 50 years, is there to prove the dominance of American art-or is it New York? The only English artist in this section is Richard Long though one might argue that stones from a marble quarry, brought into a gallery and arranged to make a long rectangle, are not truly abstract. The only other English artist in the entire exhibition is Wyndham Lewis: one small work on paper, easily missed. No Caro, no Ben Nicholson, no Hepworth, let alone Pasmore or Martin. None of the English women I have mentioned.
What the exhibition fails to deliver is the joy, the energy and the optimism of so much abstract art. “Utopian” is a pejorative term in these post-modernist days, but I cling to the notion that without utopianism there is no life. It is actually the utopian artists who show up strongest in this gathering: Kandinsky, Mondrian, Mir?. But we lack the great colour paintings and colour sculptures that would have made this exhibition sing. Instead, its emphasis is on abstraction as a mode of emotional self-expression, almost solipsism. Though the show ranges beyond Abstract Expressionism, the absence of Louis and his friends, and the almost total absence of their European counterparts, means that it ends at the top on a dying fall: pain rather than joy, isolation rather than cordiality, and much talk of risk that fails to hide a tendency towards repeatable brand images. In the beginning, abstract art was inter- or supranational. It ends, here at least, in parochialism.n