Today I visited the exhibition at Christchurch Manor, Ipswich, to see the big Constable: “Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows.”
I was amazed by its scope and scale and the power of its emotive energy – painted soon after the death of his wife Maria. The sky is as well painted as the cathedral and river scene.
But the thing that surprised me when looking close up was the many flecks of white paint used to enliven and energise the greens and blues of plants and water, as well as the buildings but not the sky.
They create a kind of hyper reality when viewed from a distance, not unlike the effect of HDR in photoshop. Or is it similar? On pondering this idea I realised there is a fundamental difference. With a photo you are always stretching reality in diagrammatic ways, with a view of the world tethered to a mechanical process. With a painting you are using every trick you can to conjure up a personal transcription of what you experience in the world.
Constable is a king of this transformative power and the flecks of paint do much more than the over-done effects of HDR. For him the high dynamic range is more a transcendence of the crude elements of paint into a symphony of visual delight. At the time some critics thought him a bit crude and shallow; now we see him as a genius of light and shadow and allow all his sensationalism to sweep us along in knowing abandon.
The muted mauves of the rainbow also set a melancholy tone within the overall feel of the painting. He’s only allowing a limited emotional response to the scene, which shows his control over nature. Don’t look for photographic realism when looking at Constable; he’s moved beyond that.