Washington Arch, New York, 2012, watercolour on paper 40 x 30 inches
After the dullest British summer in living memory, I begin to understand why landscape painters often used titles to describe the weather or to make excuses for light conditions. It suggests that these might not have been entirely natural or believable, or that they were contrived for theatrical effect. Turner and others added epithets such as “sunrise after a blustery night” or “thunderstorm approaching at sunset”. Weather is always at the forefront in Britain; never to be taken for granted, frequently surprising and often hostile. We keep a close eye on it and we discuss it freely with complete strangers.
‘Fire & Light’ is the title of my forthcoming show in New York which opens on the 13th of September. This title describes less the conditions in which the subjects find themselves, and more the elements of which they are made up, a true description far from the purely geographic label, and a hint of what the painting is really about. Washington Arch, here, could well support the title “Late Sunlight reflecting off Glass Towerblocks” because that is indeed the case. When looking at a painting we think we need to be told what the subject is, even though in this case George Washington is clearly recognisable there on the plinth, and the Stars & Stripes is a clue. The fact that it’s an arch, in reverence to the triumphal precedent of ancient Rome, is also fairly obvious. The title becomes a distraction to the nub of the painting, which is the interplay of light on surfaces.
Also in this exhibition I have a sequence of paintings of Rome, details of ancient stonework, highly refined designs carved by craftsmen, eroded by centuries and animated momentarily by fleeting effects of light today. These are glimpses which I have chosen deliberately, and at times waited for expectantly at particular times of day, returning again and again to get the moment right. Some I had journeyed specifically to witness and to paint, as seen in a series inspired by a firework display over Venice, part of the annual Festival of the Redeemer – Il Redentore. It matters not when the festival takes place, nor indeed that it’s Venice; what these paintings are about is the extraordinary explosions of light generated by artifice and the effects on the architecture and water below. These works have the titles of “Sound Study 1” or “Nocturne 3”. No need for anything more. They are not about geography.
On a recent expedition to the north of England I was anxious to set eyes on those subjects depicted by Cotman, Girtin and Turner – the “rough-hewn matter” of sublime landscape which is now bypassed on the motorways. We enjoyed places with names like Snake Pass, Gordale Scar, Hardraw Force, Dunstanburgh, all painted by Turner, Girtin and others. What impressed me was the monumentality of it all: ruined castles, gorges, waterfalls, and dramatic weather and light, not the names. Of course those painters had exaggerated what they saw, inspired to develop their feelings of awe at the sublimity of the subject as they saw it. None of their subjects is disappointing in reality today, but what we see through the lens of a camera or a car windscreen, is sterile. Reality needs a title, because the smell has gone, the spirit is inaudible and the genius has evaporated.
Reality is not art. Art is what you do with reality. Turner & others interpreted the monumentality of British landscape because they were unable to travel freely across the European landscapes of Claude and Poussin. Napoleonic Europe had been enemy territory then. Instead the rugged discomforts of northern England would be elevated to Arcadia and imbued with the mythology of history. Turner’s Dunstanburgh Castle is a gaunt tower at dawn standing guard over a rocky shore, or the backdrop to a foundering ship vainly being towed off the rocks by a steamer. His paintings are about poetry and sublimity, not history. In my latest works I have depicted the sediment of history animated by fire and light. Enjoy the exhibition but please don’t bother to read the titles!
“Late Sunlight reflecting off Glass Towerblocks” and other recent works will be unveiled at my New York show:
Alexander Creswell: Fire & Light
Hirschl & Adler Modern, New York September 13th – October 13th 2012
To view Fire & Light: www.alexandercreswell.com