Review: Turner to Monet: the triumph of landscape painting

Turner to Monet: the triumph of landscape painting, 14 March – 9 June 2008, National Gallery of Australia
Ah, the blockbuster, staple of a gallery’s financial diet. They’re a phenomenon that exists, pure and simple, so there’s no point quibbling about the rightness and wrongness. They just are, and always will be.
That said, there is a vague but persistent discomfort here in Australia, physically distant from the major collections, that extracting acknowledged masterpieces from their owners is a mighty difficult task, resulting in lesser or more obscure works being sent instead. Turner to Monet both confirms and confounds these probabilities. The 101 pieces on show form a roll call of killer international names – Turner, Constable, Corot, Courbet, Friedrich, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Monet – but few can really be called masterworks.*
Okay, this is somewhat churlish, but there is a positive trade off if you don’t set the expectations too high. Suddenly, the smallest work may assume greater power when placed next to an overly praised bombastic neighbour, which is definitely the case with John Constable’s Flatford Mill from the loch c1811. Barely the scale of an A4 piece of paper, I kept returning to this vibrant sketch in oil with scudding clouds, black trees and reflective water. Constable’s paint-rich brush marks illuminate his passage in a technique that could easily have earnt the ultimate 1980s sobriquet ‘wristy’. Ironically, it is the fact that this work is framed in a stock gallery box frame which reinforces this visual misconception, that Constable could have painted it in the 20th century, rather than the early 19th.
This is not to pretend that this painting alone makes the visit to Canberra worthwhile. There are true gems scattered throughout – five uneven Caspar Freidrichs (of which the tiniest – of clouds – is fantastic), a gritty Courbet grotto and another of a pounding wave, a stunning wall playing off Gaugain and Serusier, a very good Van Gogh, an ‘important’ Constable – but there are some ham-fisted pot boilers too. For instance, Turner is definitely represented in quantity at the expense of quality and the Thomas Cole belongs back in the dentist waiting room from whence it came.
Whilst Turner to Monet has plenty to engage, it is a stretch to really call it a blockbuster. In truth, it’s merely an interesting afternoon’s diversion.

* Well known Australian paintings also share the walls for a ‘compare and contrast’ situation

By Andrew Gaynor

Andrew Gaynor

Andrew Gaynor is a freelance curator and researcher currently based in Melbourne.