[9Feb21, p.115] John Constable is castigated as a purveyor of picturesque porn, and subjected to ridicule, particularly Hay Wain reworked by Kennard. Others cited as taking a swipe at Constable include "Paul Reas in Flogging a Dead Horse (1993) and in Darren Almond’s Night for Day (2001)" (p.115) depicting loss of industry and revisiting the sites of paintings respectively (see theguardian.com). Dimbleby's A Picture of Britain (2005) is on the course reading list and that notes (p.159) that Constable's depiction of the picturesque was more admired on the Continent than in the UK and he sold few landscapes here in his lifetime (Carey, 2022).
This is a good time to come to the defence of Constable, an easy target for glib criticism. There is a show of his late work about to close at the Royal Academy and a new biography has just been published.
In the online publicity, the RA states, "These 12 [late] years are characterised by expressive brushwork … [which] … had an important impact on the next generation of painters, heralding the beginning of important movements in the late 19th century." (RA, 2021)
In a review of James Hamilton's biography (2022), Laura Freeman (2022)
Have we got Constable wrong? The Constable of James Hamilton’s illuminating biography is a radical, an artist possessed of an “experimental burn” to paint the skies and seasons in new lights. In the 20th century, Hamilton argues, Constable was a victim of “miscasting”, his pictures dismissed as “quaintly old-fashioned”. The impressionists had stolen his thunder. Critics forgot that when it came to broken colour, modern subjects and the “lurid tones of industrialisation” Constable had got there before Monet, Manet, Pissarro and all that Paris crowd. Constable was the overlooked revolutionary.
The paintings in the RA show bear this out. While there are examples of the relatively conventional Constable, of far more interest are the radical late pieces such as Stonehenge and Rainstorm...
STOP PRESS 6th July 2022
Just Stop Oil protesters glue themselves to Constable’s Hay Wain at National Gallery
Protesters also covered the painting with a ‘dystopian’ version of the scene
The Times reported yesterday that Hay Wain's iconic status had again been reinforced when anti-internal-combustion EcoProtesters stuck themselves to the frame and posted up a variant,
The artwork, completed in 1821, shows an idyllic vision of the millpond at Flatford on the River Stour in Suffolk. According to the group, the new print “depicts a nightmare scene that demonstrates how oil will destroy our countryside”.
“The river has gone ... replaced by a road,” a spokesman said. “Planes fill the sky, pollution belches from cities on the horizon, trees are scorched by wildfires, an old car is dumped in front of the mill and the famous hay wain cart carries an old washing machine.”
Just Stop Oil are calling on the government to end new oil and gas facilities and for art institutions to join their group in civil resistance.
Peter Chappell, The Times, 5 July 2022
Chappell, P. (2022) Just Stop Oil protesters glue themselves to Constable’s Hay Wain at National Gallery [online]. thetimes.co.uk. Available from https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/63fdd64a-fbb1-11ec-88db-ae1b6b9bdd3e?shareToken=7ba516d016d681c7b7b24c9977b060d0 [Accessed 6 July 2022].
[p.117] Back to Kennard's Hay Wain..., this has proved very popular over the years, used by CND and the Greenham Common protesters. The cmat. quotes Liz Wells (2011, p.21)
. .. as political rhetoric, the composite effectively draws attention to
the dangers of annihilation through suggesting what might happen if a
nuclear war was played out on British land. Photomontage may not be
subtle but it is effective as a tactic when the aim is to make a point
quickly and directly. We grasp immediately that Britain is under threat.
Liz Wells, 2011, p.21
then goes on to note that nowadays the immediate threat is environmental rather than military and cites Epstein, Burtynsky and Halso as practitioners in this area.
Epstein's American Power (2009) was a five-year project inspired by an initial study of an Ohio town that had been bought up by American Electric Power. Epstein states,
I was not the same after this trip. The cost of growth, with its implicit energy demands, had become terrifyingly vivid. I had seen first-hand the grave results of fossil fuel production on human life and our ecosystem.
To further examine the role of energy in the United States, I embarked on a five-year-long, twenty-five-state project called American Power. I photographed a consumerist society inured to the consequences of unbridled consumption.
Similarly, Edward Burtynsky investigated Oil (2009) which looked at "just how tightly connected all of our global activity was to petrol and its raw material – oil … [and considered] … images of extraction and refinement; t he consumption of oil and motor culture; and abandoned ‘oilfields run dry’ and motor vehicles of all descriptions resigned to huge scrap heaps" (LPE, p.117). Burtynsky also photographed decommissioned military aircraft and the Chittagong the ship breakers in Bangladesh (figs C4 and C5).
In The Last Days of Shishmaref (2008), Dana Lixenberg illustrates an Alaskan community threatened by climate change (figs.C6-7).
Finally in this section, Ilkka Halso constructs fictional scenes to emphasise mankind's threat to nature, notably Museum of Nature and Naturale, depicting preservation warehouses built to maintain biodiversity.