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the landscape as an image of stability notes from 'The dark side of the landscape'

My point is that we should look twice at a notion of nature by which it seems ‘natural’ that some men should work while others do not.

J.Barell - The Dark Side of the Landscape

The tradition of the art of rural life that I am concerned with can be loosely defined as one involved in the attempt to portray the social life of the rural poor of England. The point of the enterprise was to suggest that the poor of England were as happy as the swains of Arcadia, their life as delightfully simple and enviable.


One of the chief pleasures which English people have found in English painting of rural life is that it offers an image of that life neither too artificial, nor tediosuly minute; it evades the extremes at once of pastoral idleness in a perpetual and a hopeless present tense, and of a hard georgic life whose rewards and pleasures are always in the future, and which offers us in the meantime - and it’s always the meantime - a life of assiduous self-discipline and of continued effort to maintain civilisation by cultivation. English painting offers an ideal of the rural life as one of varied, but harmonious satisfactions


We interpret pictures such as these as rural idylls, as images of the domestic felicity only available to those in humble situations; of a peaceful and a modest retirement, away from oppressive world of court and city. But this picture emerges from a world of social and economic relations that are anything but idyllic, and it speaks to us about them, as eloquently as it does about fashionable aspirations to a soft and pastoral primitivism.


As far as we can characterise Constable by his political attitudes, he seems to have been, unsurprisingly enough in view of his birth and the position of his family, an old-style rural tory, convinced that the social and economic stability of England depended on a flourishing agriculture. Although an image of the poor ‘as they really are’ could on certain terms be admitted in pictures, this would have been a considerable embarrassment to Constable in his attempt to to recreate an image of the fat and productive land.

And so it was necessary for him to reduce his figures until they merge insignificantly with the landscape, to distance them, and even when they are in the foreground, to pain them as indistinctly as possible. The labourers do not step between us and the landscape - they keep their place, and it is a very small place, a long way away. There is a real contradiction between this distance in Constable’s paintings, and the closeness of the rural community as it is imagined to be in the system of paternalism he longed to see return.


Constable uses paint not so much to imitate the appearance of a natural scene, as to recreate it, so that the pleasure of looking at these sketches lies less in their credibility or evocative power, in the degree of their resemblance to an imaginable landscape, than in harmonies of colour and texture enjoyed almost for their own sake. Objects in the landscape come to exist in terms of their relations with each other, not their relation to an actual original. At most the human figures come to represent a notional and unrealised ‘human element’, but they are really ‘objects of colour’. And what can those objects of colour be, in the right distance, but tokens of a human presence in the landscape, which remain tokes we can exchange for no more definite impression of what they are? What it is there that is somehow and vaguely human, we will not discover, however urgently we scrutinise those patches.

p. 141

The landscape is an image of stability, of permanence, the stability of English agriculture seems to partake of the permanence of nature. If the human figures became less symbolic, more actualised images of men at work, we would run the risk of focusing on them as men - not as the tokens of a calm, endless, and anonymous industry, which confirm the order of society; an not as objects of colour, confirming the order of the landscape.


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