I have this idea that the world of art divides into monuments and archways. I think of a monument as something created at the peak of an artist’s desire to solidify every artistic achievement that has occurred up to the moment of signing the art work. Up against monumental art work comes the archway piece, the one that an artist makes as s/he looks towards an un-realized artistic future.
I’m going to take two small works, both in London’s National Gallery, as examples. John Constable’s “Cenotaph to the Memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds, erected in the grounds of Coleorton Hall, Leicestershire” (from 1833-36) helps my theory by being a painting of a monument,
but that’s not why I chose it. Constable has put everything he knows into this painting, everything about every leaf, the way light falls within a cluster of trees, the way dead leaves blow onto stones... it’s a memoriam to everything he would have us know that Reynolds means to him, but, more than that, it is everything, down to the stag, pictured in an almost photographic perfection.It is letting us know that a painting of a landscape deserves the same recognition as a painting of a battle.
The second painting, my archway painting, is Camille Pissarro’s “Fox Hill, Upper Norwood,” from 1870:
It, too, is a landscape, but something is different. There is a tree, but it is sketched in, a fence, caught in a few brushstrokes, dirty lines of snow where the carriages have come, a man meeting women... nothing is firmly placed. This is not aiming at grandeur. Blink and it’s gone.
Even though the Constable places us in the center of his personal artistic debt, and it’s a beautiful and arresting work, the Pissarro feels more personal to me. The viewer is invited to walk down that same road, in that same contented mood, crossing through the archway that links us (impossibly, but artistically) to a country road in 1870.