Something out of nothing


I came across an interesting quote today in a collection of essays by John McPhee Silk Parachute, in the essay “Season on the Chalk”. He attributes the following to the artist John Constable, writing in 1824, describing The Weald of southeastern England:

[P]erhaps the most grand and affecting natural landscape in the world — and consequently a scene the most unfit for a picture….It is the business of a painter not to contend with nature, but to make something out of nothing, in attempting which he must almost of necessity become poetical.

What a statement: that there is an area of the world with too grand a landscape to be suitable to a landscape artist! A poet may seem to make something out of nothing, but isn’t she really making something out of words, emotions, ideas? Isn’t she taking in what she sees, hears, feels, thinks and re-arranging the data into a new pattern, both derived from and referring to its antecedents as well as harkening towards a new creation out of the old?

I don’t know much about Constable’s work, other than his intend was to paint ‘naturally’ rather than ‘imaginatively’, and I don’t have much insight into what art critics have put forth about his work over the nearly 200 years since he painted, but I think Constable, at least to the point that this quote is making, was wrong. Doesn’t the painter do the same thing as a poet with what he sees, adding his own emotion, his interpretations of that unique combination of sight, light and thought, mixing it with his paints and putting it on canvas in the same way a poet takes language and sound and rearranges for paper and voice.

In both cases the audience says “Ah! Now I understand” if the artist is successful. Poor John Constable; did he think instead the viewer should think “Now I see it as it really is”. What joy, shaking with gleeful rebellion perhaps, other painters must have felt when they decided Constable didn’t get it, a bit blind to the beauty his soul held within because he did not realize that not only are the light and the land different and changing, so is the painter and, thus, each work is uniquely the artist’s interpretation of what he sees, an act of taking something and making something else.

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