John Constable, Mating of Flesh, Spirit, Metropolitan Museum of Art (1983)



 English painter John Constable's (1776-1837) greatness, like all major artists, stems from an ability and insight allowing him to make the most profound spiritual and creative statements from the material of everyday existence which most people ignore or thoughtlessly accept as mere matters of routine.


 He also combines the density and materiality of nature through solidly painted and constructed forms with a search of sweeping skies for spiritual fulfillment and transcendence. Constable paints skies not only to record conditions of light and weather but as a statement and exploration of the unearthly and his desire for it.


 Humanity in his landscapes (at the Metropolitan Museum through September 4) is but a minute, peripheral element, perhaps seen in true proportion to the immensity of earth and cosmos, as trees, swales, fields, hills and distant yet emotionally and symbolically significant architectural landmarks and towers map out the progression of Constable's artistic development and spiritual quest.


 To Constable, mankind, when present in his pictures, must labor by the sweat of their brow until going to their reward. While close to nature, involved in elemental truths of an agrarian existence, the artist's people generally seem unconscious of the natural paradise about them, caught up as they are in the mundane practices of life. Does this accurate observation of humanity's lack of imagination point to the cause of, and underscore, the inevitable isolation of the profound artist, one reason why Constable turns to the God-containing sky for ultimate fulfillment?


 There is a lot of Cezanne in Constable, and vice-versa, in the sense of solid, enduring form and the embuing of landscape with allegorical significance. As Cezanne (more of a romantic than many give him credit for), Claude Lorrain and others used the device of openings through foreground trees or architecture to focus on a distant point, either architectural, a mountain (Mt. Ste. Victoire, of course, in Cezanne's case) or empty space, so does Constable for similar reasons -- implying a quest for meaning and transcendence beyond present circumstances.


 For example, Constable's composition with Salisbury Cathedral, significantly visible through an opening in darkly irregular trees, is the equivalent of Cezanne's "Great Bathers," with its own central opening through trees and foreground figures, in terms of being a manifestation of a desired spiritual goal.


 Precisely ordered and pristinely gleaming in the near distance, Salisbury Cathedral is a symbol of spiritual grandeur and fulfillment, not only in being the architecture of religion, but through its luminous lightness of color, structure and location, as if the curtain of trees had parted to reveal the vision of a previously hidden treasure.


 Whether created from personal yearning or distress, or in a time of social unrest, the desire to escape existing conditions (the dark picture foreground) contrasts with the hoped-for future (in the pictorial distance). This fundamental human desire explains the expressive power of such art, whether or not the artists themselves, or, indeed we, are fully conscious of what they do.


 In the great landscapists, the misting of distant vistas transcends technicalities of aerial perspective to represent spiritual domains, just as preciseness of foreground detail and density of substance relates to the material reality of the immediate present.


 Spiritual depth and intensity are also manifested in the materiality of form and richly developed paint substance in the work of the greatest artists -- Rembrandt is an obvious example -- where a workman's sleeve is as sumptuous as a pasha's jeweled costume. Such paintings tell us, in so many words, that "heaven is on earth, and spiritual riches reside in the simplest of everyday objects and activities."


 While such profundity of artistic statement may be found in both the early and late Rembrandt, though in different ways, as in Titian, Chardin, Constable, Cezanne and others, it is in the late work of great artists of older age that this spiritualization of matter reaches a crescendo.


 In Constable's "Hadleigh Castle," "Stoke-by-Nayland," "Helmingham Dell" and "Arundel Mill and Castle" in the current exhibition, the hoariness of paint surface and texture, as well as compositional content and structure, reveal that the artist has descended into the depth of his being. He has made contact with the ultimate realities of life, the unconscious and God himself -- all one, of course -- dredging up and revealing on canvas evidences of this encounter.


 Constable's two, powerfully poetic versions of "Helmingham Dell," one painted perhaps two years before his wife's death from tuberculosis (which left him emotionally shattered), the other two years after, are clear examples of his artistic and spiritual journey. While both are dramatic, the second, larger version, painted in 1830, seems even more intensely rhythmic.


 In these two paintings, the artist again focuses on an organic central opening formed by a small bridge and tree trunks, this time blocked by the darkness of background foliage, his line of vision lowered, seeming to look into the bowels of the earth itself. The trees twist and churn, reminding of, but preceding by forty-five years, the passion of Albert Pinkham Ryder's "Siegfried and the Rhine Maidens."


 The stream that flows out from under the bridge, representing both the waters of life and the hidden depths of the unconscious, is a final clue. It reminds us that, more than a landscape, "Helmingham Dell" is a graphic representation of the artist turning inward to explore the recesses of his psyche and the core of life itself. The painting becomes literally a mandala (a symbol of the centering of self) formed by naturalistic rather than more familiar geometric means.


 In attempting to recognize such levels of content in art, it is helpful to go beyond matters of fashionable aesthetics and academic categorizations of artists and movements to view painting as part of the fundamental process and experience of life, human development and man's relation to God. The literature of psychology and dream, myth and religion is helpful in exploring -- though obviously never fully answering -- the mysteries of art and life.


 Constable's romanticism reflects not only the emotional depth of his quest, but the preface of our own contemporary search, now acute, for a re-establishment of values in art and life, another period of attempted renewal in the eternal cycle of the rise and fall of civilizations.


 "Arundel Castle and Mill," the painting Constable was working on when he died, continues -- and concludes -- his pursuit of the "vista theme," with foreground trees and buildings slanting evenly but dramatically back to the distant castle and crevice of transcendent sky. The hoary roughness of paint surface as clearly expresses the development of the artist's sensibilities, as the emphasis on distance and the conjunction of earth and sky speak of his own -- and humanity's -- ultimate transition from flesh to spirit.








Copyright by Don Gray


Don Gray Art  •  Art Essays & Art Criticisms