Te Papa has come up with another blockbuster. The collection of Constable’s paintings, drawings, watercolours and etchings must have cost a fortune to get together, transport to New Zealand and display. The exhibition is undoubtedly an interesting collection of nineteenth century work and a testament to the breadth of skill and experimentation of the man himself. It is however a little hard to understand why such vast resources were spent bringing such an exhibition to the ‘New World’ in the 21st century. Te Papa is unwittingly giving us a glimpse of the sort of vision of landscape and values held by the culture that was on the verge of colonising our fair shores. Since no reference is made in the information panels I read to any connection with colonialism my guess is that this commentary on our pakeha forbears was not their intention.

John Constable

What seems to be Te Papa’s intention is to display Constable’s work as that of the ‘genius artist’. There is probably no point in arguing about that even if his contemporary Turner is without doubt a far greater ‘genius’. What I found most disturbing about the exhibition is its lack of critical analysis of the ideology that produced the work. Constable did contribute to the development of realism in emphasising the detail of his own locality and the way nature is always changing, but his viewpoint is highly romanticised. This romanticism is very clear in the exhibition flag bearer ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishops Grounds’ painted in 1823. This painting depicts the cathedral bathed in sunlight framed by an archway of tall trees in spring growth with cattle drinking from a babbling brook in the foreground. The painting combines the spirituality embodied in the cathedral, man’s agricultural endeavour and nature as one harmonious integrated vision. It is hard to imagine a less contemporary view of the world. We have moved a long way past this sort of romantic naivety.

In mounting a huge and expensive exhibition like this, Te Papa has to be saying: ‘This is Art that we should all admire’. It may have been the ‘Art’ of its time but its only relevance today lies in the academic interest provided by a cultural position we have long since repudiated. Reverence for the ‘Masters’ tends to construct the view that art is a thing of the past. There is no doubt that these works display an incredible mastery of the medium. Many people will be interested in the way Constable has used his paint or ink. His dedication to his work and his emphasis on preparation and experimentation probably do provide a good example of the discipline necessary to make good art. In our technological age however, even these skills are no longer relevant to art making.

When looking at ‘old’ art I have great difficulty in seeing anything other than an historical relic. These relics do tell us about where we’ve come from and that is of some interest in understanding where we’re going. My interest in them is primarily anthropological. Some art historians and critics include in their appreciation repertoire the idea that some superior work contains a beauty or aesthetic quality that has an ability to particularly affect us. These critics might describe the way a particular art work would make the hairs on the back of their neck stand up as an indication of how affecting a good work was. My hair doesn’t seem to be able to do that unfortunately. I can imagine however, that there was quite a bit of back of the neck hair movement on those Constable viewers who do have that ability, but I’m afraid I wasn’t amongst them.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]