Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The Romantics at Tate Britain

Part One - Outward Vision

The Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis

The picture which Tate Britain has been using a detail from in their advertising for their exhibition The Romantics is Henry Wallis’ The Death of Chatterton, painted in 1856. It’s an archetypal representation of the romantic poet, burning with a fiercely subjective vision of the world, flying in the face of convention, dying young in a dingy garret and leaving an exquisite and admonitory corpse for those who will later venerate the unrecognised genius which was sacrificed at the altar of convention. The fact that Wallis painted this portrayal of the artist suffering in the name of art in the attic in Grays Inn, London where Chatterton had actually lived and died says something about the idolatry which had grown up around the idea of the individual visionary; the fearless creative spirit engaged in a heroic creative struggle to express the ineffable, to encompass the extremes of human feeling through direct experience. The romantic poets Shelley, Keats and Byron and their contemporaries usually lived up to the expectations which the term raises. There is an 1827 painting in the exhibition by Sir Charles Luck Eastlake which serves to memorialise them. Called Lord Byron’s Dream, it finds the rakish aristocratic adventurer reclining decorously amongst the classical ruins, a fragment of Corinthian pillar for his pillow, with the lakes and mountains of the Near East forming a picturesque backdrop to his reveries. Wallis’ picture is somewhat misleading in representing the visual artists contained within this exhibition, however. For a start, it’s generally considered to be a part of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, a little beyond the particular period in which Romanticism is generally considered to have been dominant. Romanticism is an idea more than a style, though, and has the enduring power which ideas can harness. Its influence can be detected well beyond the accepted bracketing of dates on the art historical time chart.

Turner self portrait (1799) - a respectable Romantic
But the two Romantic painters whose works feature in the greatest number here, Constable and Turner, fail conspicuously to fit the stereotypical view of the wild and passionate bohemian which Wallis’ dramatic tableau so perfectly portrays. Both were essentially conservative men, lacking the social and political radicalism of the romantic poets. Their innovations were achieved almost in spite of their natures, rather than being a direct expression of them. There was tragically youthful death in Constable’s life, but it was that of his wife Maria. He had waited many years until familial approval and social respectability (ie comparability in wealth) dictated that they could marry, and had precious few left with her afterwards. Turner lived for lengthy periods with two widowed mistresses, but kept such relationships discretely hidden, never formalising them in marriage. His personal life was kept strictly apart from his working and public life (and on occasion set up in an entirely separate house). Both artists were members of the Royal Academy. Constable struggled to gain such official recognition but it was always his aim to attain its attendant professional status. Turner taught there and swiftly rose in the ranks to become deputy president in 1845. He was evidently adept at negotiating the politics of such an institution. None of these details, which suggest two men, both from relatively humble backgrounds, who were intent on making a living from their talents, is indicative of what is generally considered a romantic temperament.

It is the work rather than the lifestyle which really counts, though. Again, Constable doesn’t at first seem to fit in with the general conception of the romantic. However, romanticism in art was in part a reaction against the formalised classicism expected of landscape paintings. The very mundanity of the working rural environments which Constable painted marked a definitive break with such elevated subject matter; those much-depicted biblical or mythological scenes or the grand recreations of heroic historical moments. Romanticism also took inspiration from the unpredictable moods of nature, which seemed to belie the ordered rationalism of the Enlightenment and the revival of classical modes of philosophy and art which embodied it. Many sought to represent nature’s constant mutability and potential for sudden, violent change in its most extreme form, with dramatic, large scale paintings of rugged Alpine scenery or tempestuous seas. Constable remained at home and largely concentrated on studying the details of his surroundings in the county of Sussex. The success with which he was able to translate observed reality into an artistic expression of a uniquely individual perception is reflected by the fact the landscape around Dedham and the Stour Valley is now frequently referred to in terms of his paintings. His vision has become so widely known that the real is now held up for comparison with the representation, with a perhaps inevitable resultant sense of disappointment. In modern marketing terms, the artist has put his brand on the landscape, now known as Constable Country ™. He is, in a sense, the most successful of all English romantic artists, if we view romanticism as giving priority to the individual’s subjective view of the world.

Cloud Study
The changeability of nature in Constable’s work is represented by the fleeting effects of light (predating impressionism), by its evocation of seasonal atmosphere, and especially by the detailed massing of the clouds. Constable’s landscapes never unfold beneath the kind of cerulean skies found in the paintings of the 17th century landscape artist Claude Lorrain and his followers. There is the sense of the weight of weather, which more than anything lends them their English particularity. Constable’s direct and detailed study of nature enabled him to depict it in all its living variety, its convoluted patterns and shapes. His techniques, including the white flecks of paint which became known as Constable’s ‘snow’ give this detail form. This set his paintings at a remove from the ideals of classical order and proportion preponderant at the Academy, and from the symbolic role which nature was often supposed to assume. Landscape was considered suitable for use as a backdrop to the subject, a setting for the classical or biblical scene which was the foreground focus of the picture. A theatrical prop, in effect. It could also be included in a proprietorial portrait of the landed gentry, a conversation piece for the parlour in which they survey their own private arcadia. It was not supposed to be the subject itself, particularly not if it was a landscape of farms, mills and parish churches. Such concentration on the local, the refusal to adopt the subject matter deemed acceptable by the art establishment, accounts to a great extent for Constable’s difficulties in gaining entry to the Royal Academy, to which he was only finally admitted late in life, and in the face of continuing opposition. This stubborn adherence to his own artistic vision makes him that paradoxical creature, a conservative radical. A quieter sort of romantic.

Branch Hill Pond, Hampstead Heath
Constable did produce a few pictures which contain some of the more familiar elements of romanticism. The Sketch for Hadleigh Castle features a ruined keep set against a stormy sea and an unsettled sky. His view of Branch Hill Pond, Hampstead Heath (near where he lived for many years – both he and Maria are buried in the graveyard of the Hampstead parish church) features the small figure of a boy, his waistcoat a characteristic splash of red on predominantly subdued, dark tones, looking down onto the water below. The shafts of light slanting across the sky lend the impression of swift movement to the dark clouds, and the sense of a stiff wind blowing across the Heath. It is a modest English version of Casper David Friedrich’s Germanic romanticism, the boy sitting in (literally) for the solitary mountaineer of his The Wanderer Above a Sea of Mist. Constable’s painting of The Chain Pier at Brighton (which Turner also used as a subject), once more appearing beneath troubled skies, is a truncated bridge dipping a tentative toe into the sublime expanse of the ocean. The sea is very much a romantic locale, extending towards a horizon which suggests great distances and unknown lands. Although in this case (and perhaps appropriately, given Constable’s concentration on the local) reason and a large enough map would lend assurance that France was but a comfortably short jaunt across the Channel.

Turner is generally seen as being a more radical innovator than Constable, his work, with its steps towards abstraction, less likely to adorn the lids of biscuit tins. But the more conventionally romantic tenor and varied subject matter of his early and mid-period paintings suggest a man who was more willing to conform to acceptable standards and tastes. He adhered more closely to the Royal Academy’s notions of what constituted the correct from of ennobled (and ennobling) art to which they were prepared to grant their official nod of authentication. As a result, he swiftly rose in their ranks to gain an elevated position of respectability. His extensive body of work surreptitiously introduces a subjective and individual perspective to the theatrical props of epic biblical, classical and historical scenes. Turner did the Grand Tour, the obligatory art tourist route around the sites of classical antiquity and Renaissance revival, and travelled extensively through Europe at various stages of his life (Constable was too poor to undertake such observational travels across the continent). He painted in Venice and Rome but also headed north to the Swiss Alps. His paintings Valley of the Brook of Kidron, The Parting of Hero and Leander, and The Opening of the Walhalla (all of which are included here) exhibit the kind of awe-inspiring spectacle characteristic of the romantic sublime. This is the ideal of a beauty found in immensity, in a depiction of a scale against which the individual is dwarfed and made to feel overwhelmed. It’s a beauty which encompasses emotions such as terror and panic, extreme states which the artist deliberately aimed to induce.

The Goddess of Discord Choosing the Apple of Contention in the Garden of the Hesperides
These pictures feature lowering mountain ranges opening out onto wide open vistas. Towering cityscapes blend in with the natural manifestations of the sublime and match them in scale. In portraying these phantoms of the golden ages of antiquity, Turner evokes a human sublime, a dream of civilisations of an awesome splendour equal to that of nature at its most grandiose. Monumental buildings rise in cascading tiers, receding into the glowing haze of the horizon, until they blur into and are barely distinguishable from the floating accumulations of clouds. Turner’s mythological scene The Goddess of Discord Choosing the Apple of Contention in the Garden of the Hesperides (a title of great precision if not concision) also paints a romantic landscape and inhabits it with fantastic creatures. There is a looming rocky outcrop in the background with a dragon coiled languorously atop the hilly contours of its sloping plateau, almost as if it is part of the topography. These pictures are the precursors of fantasy art, the Tolkienesque creations of imaginary landscape and the soaring (or burrowing) architecture which rises from its plains and abuts its mountains. Walhalla, Kidron and the city behind Hero and Leander could be Minas Tirith or Helm’s Deep.

The Great Day of his Wrath - John Martin
Such comparisons are particularly apt when it comes to the Victorian artist John Martin. His Belshazzar’s Feast (1835), included here, is a relatively modest affair, a black and white mezzotint in which the epic scene is crammed into a small frame. A vast, open-roofed palace rises beneath roiling, lightning-split skies. Panicking hordes rush to and fro inside to escape from the blinding illumination of the burning words of judgement etched in fiery light upon the walls. To gaze upon Martin’s work in fully unrestrained mode (his preferred style) you have to go across the central hallway of the Tate into a gallery where there is a separate display going under the title Art and the Sublime. This forms a kind of adjunct to the Romantics exhibition. Here you will find Martin’s Judgement triptych from 1851-3: The Last Judgement, The Great Day of His Wrath and The Plains of Heaven. They’re difficult to miss, as they occupy almost an entire wall. They are huge in scale, attempting to achieve the effects of the sublime through the sheer overwhelming size of the canvasses. In the paintings of the end of days, taken from the book of Revelation, cities collapse, mountains fold in on themselves, the sky is torn apart by lightning and massed hordes of extras are plunged into the fiery abyss. It’s the apocalypse as directed by Cecil B DeMille or DW Griffiths. It needs a thundering Dies Irae to accompany it. The Plains of Heaven, as is usual with such comparative depictions, is less interesting. But with its blue dream skies and great pacific lakes, and the gentle oceanic swell of hills stretching off into a haze of vast distance, bounded by cloudlike ranges of icy mountains, it could comfortably adorn the cover of any epic fantasy novel.

Science fiction is another 20th century manifestation of the sublime. It has its own cloud cities, and others which float in orbit, shelter under giant domes or retreat into subterraenean caverns. Modernist (or post-modernist) Walhallas and Kidrons can be found in the cinematic futures constructed in Metropolis or Blade Runner. Both of these films feature establishing shots in which we glide in from above towards a prospect of the towering cityscape. These introductions are intended to invoke feelings of awe, and are very much in keeping with notions of the romantic sublime; The city as a range of high-rise mountain peaks and abyssal canyons. The exhibition has its Mordor as well, the industrial sublime of Paul Sandby Munn’s 1803 painting Bedlam Furnace, Madely Dale. The glow of furnaces, turning the sky a baleful red, displays the fascinations of hell, the same kind of sublime terror which might be experienced at the edge of a volcano.

The Temple of Poseidon at Sunium
Turner created more inward vistas, too, in which landscape is blocked from view by iron and stone. His Forum Romanum For Mr Soanes’ Museum is a fantasy collation of Roman architectural forms, an impractical jumble of buildings. It’s the kind of impossible city which Soane might have built in his dreams, incorporating all the chunks of classical masonry which cluttered his remarkable London town house (and which still do to this day in what is now a museum). Turner’s Interior of a Prison is his version of one of Piranesi’s sunless vaults, full of criss-crossing walkways and staircases, great pulleys and chains awaiting the grinding into gear of machineries whose purposes are best left to the imagination. You can almost hear the screams and groans echoing around these dank walls. Turner provides some standard romantic views, as well. His Caernarvon Castle is the consummate romantic ruin, surveyed from the elevated perspective of the approaching traveller. The Temple of Poseidon at Sunium sets stone ruins beside the eroded cliffs of a wild, rocky seashore, doubling the romantic appeal. These crumbling classical columns look like they could be a megalithic circle of standing stones rather than the remnants of ancient Mediterranean civilisations. It’s a particularly British take on a classical subject. In Turner’s later paintings, forms increasingly begin to blur into a haze of light, a glow of sunset reds and golds with which he haloes everything. Norham Castle could be a romantic ruin, or it could still be intact and inhabited. It’s difficult to tell from the blazing mirage of its outline. Sunrise With Sea Monsters is a title later given to a painting in which the vaguely apprehended mouths and eyes of aquatic creatures are all that emerge from the misty blur of morning dazzle. They could be behemoths or they could be cuttlefish. All sense of perspective and scale has been lost in luminous mist. In Sun Setting Over a Lake, even such half-perceived forms have vanished, leaving nothing but an engulfing miasma of light, water and sky, barely distinguishable one from the other. It’s a depiction of an inchoate nature into which human consciousness itself can become disembodied and freely float, losing itself in blissful dissipation. It’s a picture which anticipates the effect of Mark Rothko’s large paintings, with their blurred and hazy edges. A blank, if vivid and suggestively coloured canvas for the imagination.

Sunrise With Sea Monsters

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