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Terrence Heath

John Constable: Le Choix de Lucien Freud
Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, Oct. 10 2002 - Jan. 13 2003.

BorderCrossings #85, Vol. 22 #1, February 2003.
[ 1,110 words ]


No one looks more carefully at another artist's work than an artist. Wait, perhaps you say. What about conservators pouring over the surfaces of art works, monitoring, detecting and restoring the ravages of time? What about the art historians pouring over the brushwork, thematic consistencies and afterimages of underpainting? What could an artist see that they do not? Lucian Freud, who curated the exhibition Constable: Le Choix de Lucien Freud, was asked what he found so fascinating in Constable's work and he gave a most succinct, but unfashionable answer. He said: 'Constable was an incredibly emotive painter, in the true sense of the word.' In these ironic times such an answer could be easily dismissed, but Freud has earned the right to be taken seriously. In effect, in his choices Freud has rejected the cults of style and innovation as ends in themselves and sought what he experiences as authentic and true. 'Finally, there is a spiritual freshness.' He first and foremost felt what he saw, and the pieces he chose for the large, splendid exhibition showing at the Grand Palais in Paris can lead us to where we can re/see and re/feel Constable; that is why we traipse through the halls of art museums at all. Once in awhile a very good curator can lead us to this place, but in my experience another artist almost always does.

So, what did Freud see? The one thing he reacted to in Constable is the particularity of the work, whether in sketches or studio pieces. Particularity is very defining in visual art. Since the impressionists, and perhaps a bit before in painters such as Turner, there has been a tendency in painting toward the dominance of the gesture, the suggestion of light or form, the emotive sweep of the brush over the surface, the allusive and elusive play of colour, the eschewing of illusive depth. Freud sees the detail of observation rather than the sweep of expression or impression as epiphanous. The exhibition establishes this focus right at the entrance by showing Constable's famous Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree and Freud's Portrait of Nude Woman Standing, 1999-2000. The elm tree is actually a painting that Freud saw in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Afterward he set up an easel in front of an elm and tried to repeat what Constable had done, unsuccessfully. His much later nude, however, shares the straight-on particularity of the Constable work. Freud glories in the determined looker who looks so hard at the world around him that the world is transformed into something close to a visionary experience, who sees a thousand paintings in one valley. When Freud is asked in the introductory interview in the catalogue about the impact of Constable on 19th century French painting and in particular the Barbizon school, he fends off the direct influences tracked by art historians and sees van Gogh as the 19th century artist most like Constable in the intensity of his seeing.

It is difficult to see Constable because, as Freud points out in the interview, he is on 'table mats and beer coasters' everywhere. Some of his best-known paintings have become English icons and suffer badly from over-familiarity. It takes an artist such as Freud to bring freshness to the works. Amongst the 200 plus works in the exhibition are many rarely, if ever, seen. He has included portraits, for example, even though Constable seems to have only painted portraits in order to earn some quick money. There is a certain awkwardness in many of these portraits, but Freud obviously sees and lets us see Constable as a painter who even in overtly commercial dealings has an intense relationship with his subjects. Freud speculates in the interview that the portraits, in that they are not sophisticated representatives of that genre, merely indicate their importance for seeing the landscapes. 'It could be said that Constable decided they didn't need a separate approach.' Constable paints his subjects as they 'happen to be' (to pick up a phrase Freud used to describe his own portraits in the recent exhibition of his works at the Tate Gallery in London). In Head of a Girl, Back View, 1806, for example, there is a powerful and unexpected eroticism, which parallels the intensity of the emotional relationship in all his works.

Freud's focus as an artist can also be seen in some of the works he didn't include in the exhibition. Constable not only sketched in the detailed way of the works selected by Freud but also used sepia washes in rough, quick gestural drawings in which he captures the play of light and shadow almost to the exclusion of subject matter. Freud left these aside. He also left aside, and in the interview explicitly demoted, the much vaunted cloud studies and depictions of Constable. He sees them as nothing more than notes. Constable did not, in his opinion, transform them as he transformed everything he saw in the landscape. Freud states outright, 'Finally, they lack interest.'

And yet, while he excluded the sepia washes, he included a number of large oil 'sketches'. These paintings are approximately the same size as the finished works that were submitted to the Academy. They seemed to have been included for a number of reasons. In these full-sized sketches in oil, Constable is establishing scale, the impact and balance of the final work, suggesting that he needed to re/see the work in its final size rather than simply project it from smaller sketches. These oils also show Constable at a moment of greater freedom, placing colour, outlining shapes, changing and manipulating the landscape image. The process of painting engages Freud's eye and gives us a chance to see them as Constable saw them developing. Freud even included an unfinished work, Dedham Lock and Mill, 1820, in which the raw canvas shows through in the foreground.

The works of Constable, works that had a greater impact on French painters of the 19th century than on English, were last shown in Paris in 1824. In the Grand Palais exhibition, he has returned, not only as the major painter that he was but also enlivened by the eye of a devoted contemporary painter who has sought out the uniqueness and immediacy of Constable's approach to his craft. I think there is much in Freud's choice to quibble, even argue over, but it would be impossible to deny the impact of what he sees and what he gives us to see again.

BorderCrossings #85, Vol. 22 #1, February 2003.

Text: © Terrence Heath. All rights reserved.


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