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Brush of the Titans: blockbuster shows revive the greatest rivalry in British art

August 25, 2014

Jonathan Jones on two exhibitions that illustrate the competing claims of Turner and Constable to stand above all others

The most spectacular artistic rivalry in British history will be revived in September when blockbuster exhibitions by two of the nation's most renowned painters pitch them into direct competition, just as they were in their lifetimes two centuries ago.

The simultaneous shows unavoidably provoke the question asked ever since the artists were showing side by side in the Romantic age: who is the greatest British painter ever?

Is it Joseph Mallord William Turner, whose glowing, occasionally abstract, visions of sea and sky and the violent elements are celebrated at Tate Britain from 10 September? Or is it his contemporary John Constable, whose acute observations of the clouds, trees and changing light of his native Suffolk are examined at the V&A 10 days later?

There are of course other heroes of British painting - Gainsborough, Bacon, Freud and Hodgkin - but Constable and Turner stand apart as both had a profound influence on the birth of modernism. The way they broke out of the conventions of "correct" painting to try to capture the freshness, change and sheer reality of nature helped inspire the impressionists and gave these two landscape masters a place at the heart of modern art's history.

Matisse, for example, revered Turner, whom he imagined living in a London basement and only letting in the light once a week to flood his mind.

But who was best? This is not a vulgar 21st-century thing to ask; it was asked too by their contemporaries. The rivalry between these men born a year apart - Turner in 1775, Constable in 1776 - was played out in the annual exhibition at the Royal Academy, where the artists of early 19th-century Britain measured up to each other.

Today's RA summer exhibition is a pale shadow of what was then a spectacular social occasion at Somerset House in London, where artistic reputations were made and broken. It was here, in May 1832, that Constable showed his painting The Opening of Waterloo Bridge. He had worked intermittently on the 6ft-wide canvas for a decade, striving to create a grand public statement. It was hung alongside Turner's latest seascape, a picture of Dutch ships in a gale.

At last the genius of Constable had its day - or so it seemed.

The surface of Constable's painting glittered with speckled sunshine, casting its rival in the shade. Turner came and stared. He went away. He came back with his brush and palette. Loading his brush with bright red, he put a glob of bloody, blazing colour in the middle of his green painted sea. Suddenly it looked exciting, experimental - set alight by red in a moment of pure painterly freedom. "He has been here and fired a gun," wrote the shellshocked Constable.

Mark Evans, curator of the V&A's new Constable exhibition, concedes this true story captures a difference between the painters. "Constable is the technician and Turner is the magician."

David Blayney Brown, co-curator of the Turner show at Tate Britain, says: "You could say if you wanted to be rude that Constable was a more plodding artist than Turner." Popular culture seems to agree. Mr Turner, not Mr Constable, is the subject of Mike Leigh's biopic to be released in October. A splendidly grimacing Timothy Spall as Turner contemptuously applies his glob of red paint before an admiring crowd while Constable watches helplessly.

Yet Constable has heavyweight support. Lucian Freud, for one, loved him. In 2003 Freud selected an acclaimed show at the Grand Palais in Paris, Constable: Le Choix de Lucian Freud. "Lucian perceived Constable as a fellow realist," says Evans. "Everybody talks about truth to nature in art, but how many people really mean it? With Constable it has an awesome reality and consistency."

It is that utter fidelity to what he saw that makes Constable a revolutionary artist. At the heart of his radicalism lay a dedication to painting in the open air. The tiny oil sketches now recognised as his most brilliant creations have no big stories to tell; they are direct apprehensions of shadows moving across a meadow, rainclouds massing over a farm, people walking on a beach. Here perhaps is the true beginning of impressionism, realism - the modern eye.

By contrast, Evans says, Turner rarely painted outdoors and portrayed places without real specificity. "Although Turner travels everywhere, it's no coincidence that his watercolours of one German city have been identified as a different German city." Yet Blayney Brown disputes that Constable is less woozy than Turner. "Turner was a bombastical showoff but isn't there a place for bombastical showoffs? You can say the same thing about Constable's 'six-footers' [the big RA canvases]."

The real miracle is that Constable and Turner each existed, that British painting suddenly jumped to the forefront of European art in their lifetime. After them, it sank back into Victorian stodge. There's no question Constable was in awe of Turner. In fact, it was Constable who best described what made Turner so great, and what gave the cockney rebel the edge. One night in 1813 they had dinner together at the Royal Academy. "I was a good deal entertained with Turner," wrote Constable afterwards. "He has a wonderful range of mind."

Exactly. In Turner's paintings we don't just see our own country, or one time. His art is a dizzying imaginative journey through ancient empires and swirling seas, Greek mythology, Napoleon and the steam age. Turner's spaces, defined by light and swooned by feeling, fascinated the abstract painters Mark Rothko and Cy Twombly. Constable was Freud's hero. When people ask if he prefers Constable to Turner, Evans throws a question back: "My answer would be, do you prefer Mark Rothko to Lucian Freud?"

* Late Turner - Painting Set Free is at Tate Britain from 10 September

* Constable - The Making of a Master at the V&A from 20 September


Royal Academy rivals: Turner's Helvoetsluys (top) and Constable's The Opening of Waterloo Bridge Pictures courtesy of Tokyo Fuji Art Museum and Tate

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Source: Guardian (UK)

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