Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Hay-Wain

The Victoria & Albert Museum in London's South Kensington has the rough draft of Constable's "Hay Wain" - the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square has the finished version - and I have to say I much prefer it. The Turneresque sky. The very fact that it is not "finished", which is to say: turned into photographic art, and rendered static in the process, fixed for all time in neat-and-tidiness, perfect for jigsaw puzzles and chocolate boxes, where it has tended to live most of its posthumous existence. That draft, or sketch, though it is surely far too elaborately detailed to be called "a mere sketch", contains the authentic ephemerality of the "captured" scene (can one really "capture" a scene, and take it home on a canvas, or in a camera, and mount it on the wall like the trophy of a Serengeti lion? I suppose one can), and surely that ephemerality is as necessary for an authentic depiction of the scene as are its material objects?

Intellectually intriguing as it is to have two artist's versions of the same painting, the intrigue becomes deepened when there are also two rather different photographs of the same painting - the one at the top of the page is from the V&A's own website, and it is markedly different in tone, even while it is precisely identical in every other feature, from the alternative version below (I was very naughty; when the docent wasn't looking I took a photo on my digital camera, and frankly, if this was it, I would have passed it by: too dark, too dull, too lacking in clarity - if only the artist had put some sunlight into the sky behind those clouds... what? he did... show me... where? in the one on the V&A website, you're absolutely right - does art appreciation then depend as much on aperture and shutter speed as it does on... well, any other aesthetic considerations?)

And how fascinating, given its date - the "Hay-Wain" belongs to the 1820s, fifty years too early - that you could place this "draft" anonymously in an exhibition of Impressionist paintings, and no one would spot the outsider.

And indeed, exploring the commentaries on the Internet, it appears that the Impressionists also had this thought, and were deeply influenced both by the finished Turners and by unfinished sketches such as this one...

I also like the unfinished nature of the work from a second perspective. During my few years as an actor, I always preferred the rehearsals to the performance, because rehearsals were never just an endless run-through of the play, repeating the choreography decided by the director and reciting the lines fixed by the dramatist, but were always an act of personal exploration and discovery, no different really from Magellan sailing off to find the North-West Passage, or Scott snow-walking to the Pole, or the spaceship Voyager boldly going where not even science fiction spaceships had ever gone before.

"Finding the character" is really just the same, and then still more so in the struggle to relate the character you are slowly uncovering to the ones your fellow actors are simultaneously discovering (the conflict in terminologies will become clearer in the closing paragraph of this essay). I have this same sense with the V & A "Hay-Wain", can imagine Constable down there in East Bergholt in Suffolk, sniffling in the damp air of an autumn morning (the original title was "Landscape: Noon", but we have to assume he started somewhat earlier in the day), in the marshy grounds of Flatford Mill, with Willy Lott's cottage on his left, and his thoughts not just full of the technical problems of getting that hay-wagon as it crossed the shallow stream, but the emotions behind this choice of venue, memories of his father, who once owned that cottage, memories of childhood spent looking at it every time he gazed out of the window or walked the neighbourhood. You don't get any of that in the final painting, but the chimerical light and the impressionistic haziness certainly hint at that nostalgia, that sentimentality. 

There are other sketches too, many of them made during his childhood there - the V & A has a very small small oil sketch of Willy Lott's cottage from about 1811 (the illustration on the left), and blow me if that isn't exactly the same dog as the one in the final "Hay-Wain" of 1821! And were those trees against the front wall not painted by Seurat, the ones behind by Manet, that sky by Turner?

I found myself wondering if my response was just me, so I went to the V & A's website and looked up the painting. "The finished picture in the National Gallery," it told me, "differs hardly at all in composition - only the figure on horseback in the foreground has disappeared - but it does show a more detailed treatment of the landscape, with firmer contours and more naturalistic colouring. It is by far the better known of the two, yet in some ways it is the sketch, with its rapid brush strokes, its flecks of white and green skimming the surface, and its generally broader treatment that accords more with modern taste." 

Yes, "with modern taste". That, too, is a significant statement about the painting - that we "like" and "dislike" certain works of Art, not for whatever "their intrinsic qualities" might have been at the time that they were painted, but for what we now regard as "their intrinsic qualities", because that is what suits the "correctness" of our epoch. So we reject works from the past when they do not conform to our present dogma (which of course is not dogma at all, but right thinking, and must be so, because it is ours), just as often as the past rejected perfectly good works at the time (see any number of pages on this blog for examples!), and always for the same reason.

The National Gallery provides teacher's notes for primary schools on "The Hay-Wain" (click here):

For those of you who absolutely, definitely, no question about it, much prefer the final version, click here to be hugely disappointed by a larger-than-thumbprint version whose shutter-speed and aperture-settings are simply dismal and thereby ruin the piece, but also an unabashed extolling of its virtues.

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