It is not often that I am disappointed by an art show. There is usually something that I enjoy about it. However the current exhibition at the National Gallery, showing the work of Thomas Cole, I found quite disappointing. I had not heard of Thomas Cole before. This rarely puts me off as I have been to many shows I've thoroughly enjoyed that focus around artists unknown to me.
Who is Thomas Cole. Well he was English and American. He focused on two types of landscapes. The first and probably more successful type is the mythic as shown above.
The second type are Arcadian landscapes, stripped of most human habitation, all lush greens and looking mountain ranges. He specialised in landscapes of the US and his work was used to popularise the Hudson river valley. It is because of these two different strands that you have the title of the show. It also reflects a series of paintings that Cole did, that are the centre piece of the show, which show an empire raising from an empty landscape and returning to ruin.
The problem with Cole, at least for me, is that there is very little to his work. It is all very pretty and all well done, but it is just rural propaganda. The myth of the virgin countryside. It lacks punch, it lacks depth. The imagery and metaphor when they appear are all overworked. There is a lack of anything substantial. He is important in part because of his main subject matter but also because he is an early painted of the American countryside. He doesn't paint what's there though, or even a reflection of it. He paints an idealised version. An the ideal in question is quite a dull one.
One thing the curators have done, which does Cole no favours, is put in the show pictures of his contemporaries who inspired him. In one room then, you have 2 large Turners and 2 large Constables. All of excellent quality and quite frankly completely eclipsing Cole in terms of style, technique and in fact anything.
Indeed the main thing I got from this show was seeing a Constable I had never seen before. The spectacularly craggy Hadleigh Castle (above) which was on loan from the Yale Centre for British Art. It is a marvelous piece. About 6 foot square, with this ruined castle, with its enigmatic split through the tower, a stormy sky and then the wooded river valley beneath it. People are here, and although this too is idealised, the ideal here is an interesting one. I spent about 80% of my time in the show, looking at the one painting. It was almost, on its own worth the admission price.
The other Constables and Turners are very fine too, don't get me wrong, but I had seen them before (they were from the Tate I think). All this showed to me it seemed was to firmly push Cole into the second rank.
The National Gallery is despite the occasional miss-step, still and excellent museum and rewards just wandering around. The recently opened up two new rooms in the basement, in order to put more works on display and I like ambling through it seeing if I can spot something new that takes my eye. I did that this time and found two new friends. The first is the delightfully named Narcisse-Virgillio Diaz de la Pena (above). Who had two works on display called The Storm (top) and Common with Stormy Sunset (bottom).
He obviously liked storms and I can see why he would. He paints them with a wonderful energy, and delicate subtle tones of gray (in the top one) and gold or orange (in the bottom one). Then you have them set over these murky almost muddy wet and desolate landscapes. I particularly like the way he has these somewhat lonely trees silhouetted against the sky. Lovely stuff, I would like to see more of it.
Almost directly opposite him were three paintings by Adolphe Monticelli (above) who like Diaz is a 19th Century French painter but with a very different style. He has this crusty, deep (probably not the right word) use of paint that is particularly well displayed in the larger piece on the left called Still Life with Oysters. The objects themselves are difficult to make out, the crusty paint catching the light in odd ways, and it is a great deal more modernist than one would of expected for the period. The colours and the shape morph into each other. A similar style appears in those post box landscapes but they, to me at least are less interesting.
Go then to the National Gallery. There is always something to discover. Just don't perhaps bother with Eden and Empire (unless you are a Constable fan).
William John Mackenzie
I am an artist with a specialism in landscapes and still life. My contact details are here.