HOW SURPRISING IS IT THAT LUCIAN FREUD IS curating a Constable show in Paris? Not at all, in fact, for while the YBAs have tried to upset the establishment, the OBAs have lately been digging their heels hard into the past. “Encounters: New Art from Old,” the millennial show at London’s National Gallery, reinforced this retrospection by calling on twenty-four artists, thirteen of them British, to select one of the collection’s masterpieces and translate it into their own idiom. In their choices British art also figured large: Turner turned up twice, thoroughly digested and resurrected by Cy Twombly and Louise Bourgeois; Hogarth’s narratives got an update from Paula Rego; an aristocratic horse by Stubbs was demoted to a pitiful donkey by Jeff Wall; and Constable’s Haywain was slashed to stormy fragments by Frank Auerbach. As for Lucian Freud, he chose to revisit the French eighteenth century, as he had done in the early ‘80s with a reincarnation of Watteau. He turned to Chardin’s Schoolmistress, rendering the f flesh of both gracious teacher and diligent pupil in the grayed-out putty he uses to cover all bones and skulls, whether Leigh Bowery’s or Queen Elizabeth II’s, with blemished, sagging skin. Now Freud crosses the Channel again, but this time his tale of two cities is told as a curator, not a painter. Freud has selected almost two hundred works by Constable—large paintings, small painted sketches, drawings, watercolors—to be seen at the Grand Palais from October 10 to January 13, 2003, close on the heels of his own retrospective at Tate Britain.
Constable has always had a special role in France, not only as an acknowledged stimulus for the young Romantics, but as a prophet of Impressionism. In the early 1820s, Gericault, Delacroix, and lesser masters turned excitedly to his work, responding to the startling immediacy of its vibrant application of paint. Delacroix, seeing the three Constables sent to the Salon of 1824, commented, “Ce Constable me fait un grand bien” (“This Constable has done me a lot of good”). His enthusiasm gave rise to a story that may be more legend than fact, namely, that on seeing the Haywain, he repainted passages of his own entry that year, Scenes from the Massacre at Chios, with greater sparkle.
Constable’s endless progeny, which repeat pastoral formulas of British landscape’s peace and plenty (occasionally interrupted by predictable spells of bad weather), have tended to dull his innovative genius for us today; but now even the French, after seeing this archetypal British painter through Freud’s eyes, may discover him anew. One immediately wants to know why the current deity in the British pantheon (an artist who, for many, has inherited Bacon’s role as the answer to rhetorical questions like “Is he the greatest living painter?”) is so attracted to this venerable ancestor. Here the word realism, which may now have too many meanings to mean anything, keeps turning up. Looking at Constable and Freud together, it might be said that one does for landscape what the other does for flesh, namely, stare with passion at every irregularity of bark, leaf, and cloud (or skin, hair, and bone) and set as an obsessive goal the recording of this infinite variety of things intensely observed. Even the words Constable used to describe what he saw on a lane in Suffolk—”the lights and shadows of Evening are of a more saffron or ruddy hue, vegetation being parched during the day from the drought and the heat”—might well serve as a description of the rugged and varied landscape Freud makes out of flesh, with its hills and vales, dry and moist patches, subcutaneous veins and bones, all scrutinized with a paralyzingly acute focus.
Will Freud’s show be different from the usual Constable retrospective? In many ways, yes. Of course, there is bound to be the richly varied evidence of Constable’s probing into the truths of landscape—rapidly painted studies of fugitive clouds, drawings of wildflowers, storm-drenched views of Hadleigh Castle, windswept moments on the beach at Brighton. But Freud has also included many surprises; for instance, there’s The Risen Christ, 1822: One of three seldom seen altarpieces Constable made for local churches, this newly restored painting represents an offbeat moment in which the artist portrayed the supernatural, belying his wish to be a “natural painter.” And returning to earth, there will be an unusually large number of portraits of Constable’s family and rural friends, a much neglected aspect of his art long awaiting fresh consideration. Freud’s warts-and-all vision of contemporary Londoners promises a new angle on Constable’s own extensive portrait gallery, with its relentless plain-prose account of the faces and clothing of people from his personal world. Under Freud’s scrutiny, Constable may well be reborn on both sides of the Channel, launching another chapter in the story of Anglo-French alliances.
Robert Rosenblum is a contributing editor of Artforum.