Christchurch Mansion hosts exhibition that explores the Lucian Freud-John Constable connection
One is known mainly for nudes, the other, landscapes, so Lucian Freud and John Constable make rather unusual bedfellows. However, there are some rather surprising links between the two artists as Arts Editor Andrew Clarke discovered at a new exhibition in Ipswich.
When it comes to pairing up artists, it would take someone with a fairly vivid imagination to draw links between Lucian Freud, famed for his bold portraits and fleshy nudes, with genteel Georgian landscape master John Constable.
At first look, the pair would seem to have little in common, living in different centuries and having different artistic pre-occupations but as with most things in life – it seems that opposites attract.
A new exhibition at The Wolsey Gallery, part of Christchurch Mansion, juxtaposes Freud’s paintings with Constable’s work drawn from the Ipswich Borough’s collection.
The link between the two titans of the art world are channelled through the Dedham Vale and Flatford. It’s a world that both artists were very familiar with. As a young man in the late 1930s, Lucian Freud was a student of Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett Haines at the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing in Dedham before it moved to Benton End, near Hadleigh.
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The school was destroyed by fire in 1939 and Freud himself claimed to have started it with a carelessly discarded cigarette end. Officially the cause of the blaze was never discovered and there were those who thought that Freud claimed credit for something he didn’t do just to bolster his bad-boy image.
The East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing was at the cutting edge of modern art in the 1930s and drew disapproval from eminent local artist Alfred Munnings who drove past the smoking ruins and was heard to mutter something about divine retribution.
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Despite being surrounded by Constable country, Freud, during his early years, was quite dismissive of Constable’s work. Exhibition curator Jayne Austin said that the young artist thought Constable’s work was too literal and too-chocolate boxy to be taken seriously.
“He thought Constable was a bit soppy and too sentimental. But, he revised his opinion when he set himself a challenge to replicate a pencil study that Constable had done of an elm tree.
“Much to his surprise, after several attempts, he realised that he just couldn’t do it. Later in his career he would return to this study of an elm tree and even when he was an old man he produced an etching of this elm tree, so it continued to have a tremendous hold over him. It was a huge influence and it remained a challenge that he wanted to meet. He wanted to be as good a draughtsman as Constable.
“I think the technical skill that Constable displayed gave Freud a tremendous appreciation of Constable the man as well as the artist. I think the pair were probably quite similar in many ways. Both were perfectionists. Constable often took years to complete a final work. With Salisbury Cathedral From The Meadow, for example, which forms part of this exhibition, there are dozens of preparatory sketches and studies created over two years.
“And when Lucian Freud painted his mother he famously had her sit for 4000 hours. Again you are looking at two artists who were completely obsessed with capturing what they could see in their mind’s eye, what they could see in their head, and what they needed to set down on paper.”
In 2002, Freud curated an exhibition of Constable’s work “Constable – Le Choix De Lucian Freud” at The Grand Palais, Paris. Freud’s selection celebrated some of Constable’s lesser-known works, including portraits and small sketches, demonstrating, in part, the breadth of Constable’s talent, and engagement with East Anglia, beyond the well-known, so-called chocolate box depictions.
Freud said then: “Constable was an incredibly emotional painter – in the proper sense.”
This new exhibition at The Wolsey Gallery provides an echo of that wide-ranging exhibition creating Suffolk links between the two titans.
The latest exhibition features two major works by Freud, Man with a Thistle (Self-Portrait) and Standing by the Rags, which have been loaned by Tate Britain and will be displayed alongside the Cedric Morris works Portrait of Denise Broadley, Gutted Art School, Dedham and Wartime Garden.
The juxtaposition of Freud’s pictures with work by Cedric Morris and a revised re-hanging of the Mansion’s Constable allows visitors to see direct links between seemingly disparate artists.
Caleb Howgego, who is helping to oversee this year long Constable exploration, said this exhibition, more than any other, demonstrated that Constable was more than just a traditional landscape painter.
“His studies reveal that Constable wasn’t, in the first instance, concerned about getting a hyper-realistic scene. His studies are much freer and looser and you can see how these works may have inspired the impressionists. You can see an awful lot of early impressionism in Constable’s sketches and oil studies. This would have certainly appealed to Freud.
“Also the early impressionists would have appreciated Constable’s commitment to nature and the fact that he would have gone out and done sketches on an almost daily basis. This was a huge part of impressionism later on. Constable would have been seen as a pioneer and not as traditionalist.”
He said people now forget that he was also an accomplished portrait painter. To illustrate this, the Wolsey gallery exhibition not only puts some family portraits on show but also brings out a couple of rarely seen nudes which Constable captured in pencil.
This forms a strong link with the work of Lucian Freud and in particular one of the loans, Standing by the Rags.
Helping to cement the link between Freud and Constable is Cedric Morris. His paintings from the late 1930s and the war years, Portrait of Denise Broadley, Gutted Art School, Dedham and Wartime Garden are included in the exhibition as a bridge between Freud and Constable. Morris was a huge influence on Freud, as he was on another student, Maggi Hambling. His Wartime Garden has clear echoes of Constable’s painting, Golding Constable’s Flower Garden, which remains a central feature of the Ipswich collection.
Jayne Austin said research shows that visitors to the exhibitions are just as interested in the lives of the artists as they are in the work and the works that gain the biggest responses are those where you can see connections to the artist’s personal life.
Caleb added: “Through Constable’s paintings we can see what was important to him. The Suffolk countryside, the views, the fields, the walks he took almost every day, are brought vividly to life in his paintings. This was his world and the same is true of Freud. He spent virtually all his time ensconced in his studio and his studio features heavily in his work.
“Looking at the background is hugely informative because it tells you a little more about his life. In Standing By The Rags, his model is standing by discarded sheets and rags he used to clean his brushes and hadn’t bothered to clear away. There is nearly always something in the background which will give you a greater understanding of the paintings or his life at the time.”
Caleb said that in the same way that Freud was forced to re-evaluate Constable he hopes that members of the public will also re-evaluate the breadth of Constable’s talent and also what Freud accomplished during his long career. “Constable was more than the painter of iconic scenes and Freud was more than a grumpy painter of nudes. Both had tremendous technical skill and a passion for their work and were both pushing at the boundaries of their art. They also had their roots in Dedham and in what we now call Constable Country.”
The exhibition is part of the Aspire programme, a five-year partnership project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Art Fund to enable Constable’s magnificent six-footer Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows to go on view across the UK.
Curated by Emma Roodhouse, the Ipswich element of the project is also designed to showcase the borough’s Constable collection, the largest outside London.
Constable and Freud: Legacy and the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing is on display at Christchurch Mansion’s Wolsey Art Gallery, Ipswich, until January 31 2016. Entry to Christchurch Mansion is free.