A new exhibit at the Yale Center for British Art has the charm of Victorian London and the boldness of the Modern Tate, and nothing to connect the two.
If you’ve seen one Romantic landscape, you probably think you’ve seen them all. But “The Chiaroscuro of Nature,” which runs until Dec. 29, doesn’t just feature the same old paintings.
Not only are there your classic Romantic landscapes, there are some slightly older works from the pre-Victorian Norwich School and strangely, a few “Modern Romantic” pieces created in the last 20 years.
Overall, the Romantic landscapes, allegedly the centerpiece of the exhibit, take a back seat to the rarely seen black-and-white etchings from which they are derived. Though some of the etchings were published, most were not. “Chiaroscuro” offers a rare perspective on Romanticism largely forgotten today.
The most revealing part of the exhibit, featuring rare progress proofs of the final pieces, shows how one work of art can be represented in multiple ways. The display cases showing tools and printmaking plates combine with the proofs to make the exhibit feel like a practical destination for an art history field trip.
For example, the development of J.M.W. Turner’s “Folkestone Harbour and Coast to Dover” is presented both as a painting and by various etchings he drew, which were subsequently engraved by J. Horsburgh around 1831. Next to the colorful painting, the black crashing waves and streaky sky of the print take on a grave eeriness absent from the original.
Like most paintings of the Romantic era, the works in the exhibit are largely landscapes, and as the exhibit’s title suggests, they focus on nature in all her glory. While the elimination of color detracts from the aesthetic value of the rainbows, the stormy skies — complete with heavy black clouds and thin pointed darts of lightning — are enhanced by the restriction to shades of black and white.
John Constable, who did the original paintings and drawings, was aware of the bleak power of the prints.
“It looks as if all the chimney sweepers had been at work on it, and thrown their soot bags up in the air,” Constable told David Lucas, who etched many of the drawings.
Constable’s assessment is also appropriate for the Turner pieces labeled “Industrial Sublime.” Arguably the artist most influenced by an England transformed by the industrial revolution, Turner’s Romantic landscapes are decreasingly romantic and decreasingly landscapes.
Unfortunately, the inclusion by the curator Gillian Forrester of Turner’s later works is a poor attempt to bridge the gap between Constable’s contemporaries and the bold, bright paintings and photographs of “Modern Romantics” Peter Doig, Richard Long and Hamish Fulton.
At this point, the tiny exhibit loses its fluency and appeal. The absence of engravings of the contemporary works and the vast differences in painting styles — from realistic to abstract — confuses the purpose of the exhibit. Constable, who coined the phrase “chiaroscuro of nature,” would no more understand Hamish & co. than he would understand Picasso.
A better complement comes in the form of the “Norwich School,” including John Crome and John Sell Cotman. Crome’s major works were realistic landscapes in oil, but he also helped to revive etching in England. Crome’s works were such a direct precursor to Constable and Turner that they are even difficult to distinguish from the later works.
The upshot? If you have 15 minutes to spare and/or a thing for British Romantics, go to the exhibit. It’s a trip — a short one.