A detail from Turner's “War, the Exile and the Rock Limpet”.
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Mark Lawson: Turner and Constable rarely spoke to each other, but their pictures do

An accident of gallery scheduling means that London currently has a sort of early-19th-century chat show in which the two painters converse.

The jargon of art curation includes the concept of “conversation”, in which pictures are arranged to talk to – or against – each other. By an accident of the gallery calendar, two of London’s biggest picture palaces have created a sort of early-19th-century chat show in which two painters and many paintings converse with revealing nods of the head and a few intriguing shakes.

John Constable (1776-1837) and J M W Turner (1775-1851) have always invited twinning, born a year apart and then, in their artistic afterlives, competing for the position of the most-loved depicter of England. In a Today programme poll of “the greatest painting in Britain” in 2005, Turner’s Fighting Temeraire beat Constable’s Hay Wain into second place, an image of the seas around England trumping a picture of the fields within.

Yet, although the double act is long established, their coincidental new shows – “Constable: the Making of a Master” (Victoria and Albert Museum, until 11 January 2015) and “Late Turner: Painting Set Free” (Tate Britain, until 25 January 2015) – constantly suggest new overlaps and debates. Competitive by nature, the men sometimes tackled identical subjects in turn – Waterloo Bridge, Salisbury Cathedral, Brighton Beach – and both favoured extreme research. While the curators question the legend of Turner lashing himself to a ship’s mast in a gale to scout a seascape, he certainly favoured al fresco sketching, as did Constable, who once stood through a Lake District storm, as evidenced by rain stains visible on the canvas. Spookily, Constable, in a self-portrait early in the new exhibition, strikingly resembles the young Timothy Spall, who plays the ageing Turner in Mike Leigh’s movie released next month.

The exhibitions repeatedly reveal deep resonances between the contemporaries. “The Making of a Master” makes a particular point of Constable’s dialogues with the Old Masters – we see works by artists such as Rubens and Claude that he took on – but “Painting Set Free”, though less programmatically, shows Turner’s debt to Dutch examples in particular.

Both painters, in their late work, violently diverged from their familiar style. From the dark, mournful swirls of Rainstorm Over the Sea in the mid-1820s, Constable began a turn (that seems Turner-like to someone who has just seen the raging sea scenes at Tate Britain) towards such strange, late canvases as Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831), in which the rural and ecclesiastical site seems under a deadly menace (in the huge bruises of storm clouds above the spire) and, from an incongruous rainbow, a hint of Blake-like derangement that continues in the sinister mysticism of a watercolour of Stonehenge (1836), in which the scattered pieces resemble smashed teeth or broken bones. The only biscuit tins you can imagine these Constables illustrating would be in the backpacks of special operatives behind enemy lines.

Blake, the two men’s slight artistic English senior, also seems to have penetrated the later dreams of Turner in a sequence of improbably apocalyptic works including The Angel Standing in the Sun (1846), in which a savage splatter of his signature orange colour (used to create the many sunsets and fires in his early work) forms an exploding sun, above which hovers a pained-looking angel, illustrating a verse from Revelation.

If existence looks to be coming to an end in that picture, a more pleasurable climax seems to inform a contemporaneous painting, with the oranges and yellows orgasmically obliterated by a bleached cloud, into which a woman leans to bestow a kiss. Yet, even here, the pleasure is deadly: Undine Giving the Ring to Massaniello dramatises the story of a fisherman who is killed as a consequence of one ecstatic embrace.

In these departures, both artists were widely considered to have taken leave of their senses. The critic Ruskin described Turner’s 1846 images as “indicative of mental disease”, while contemporary accounts suggest that admirers of The Hay Wain considered the Salisbury Cathedral and Stonehenge pictures as, in Woody Allen terms, Interiors after Annie Hall.

It seems a reasonable biographical reading that, in their later work, Turner had woken up to sex (beginning, in his fifties, a relationship with the widow Mrs Booth), while Constable was opening his eyes to death. Constable’s wife, Maria, died in 1828 and he had lost his friend and patron Bishop John Fisher three years earlier. The V&A display also contains a copy of Jacob van Ruisdael’s blackly melancholic Winter Landscape, made midway between the deaths of his loved ones and his own death.

In his catalogue for the Constable exhibition, the curator Mark Evans reports one example of an actual conversation between the artists. After meeting Turner at a Royal Academy dinner in 1813, Constable wrote to his fiancée: “I was a good deal entertained with Turner. I always expected to find him what I did – he is uncouth but has a wonderful range of mind.” Visitors to London this autumn will find range and entertainment in a pair of shows ideally seen together. 

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State