London’s Turner, Constable & Rembrandt shows are a feast for the soul

In the red corner – three of the world’s greatest painters and three of Britain’s best exhibitors of art, pitted against each other on one mild weekend of wintery drizzle. In the blue corner – diary clearing, online ticket sales, entry times, weekend public transport and snack planning.

This is #turnableandt, a battle of admin versus art. Turner, Constable and Rembrandt digested in one weekend. All three shows run to mid January so we hit them all at once and against the odds we survived, the Lady and I.

We stumble from the National Gallery into Sunday’s evening mist, invigorated but gasping at the glorious 48 hours of painted poetry we had witnessed. This is the way art should be consumed! In great gulping mouthfuls, two days of brush-stroked feasting and varnish-glazed indulgence.

Our intention was to record every detail with objective precision – visitor access, digital offering, toilets and tea for two. In fact what hit us was the whirlwind of stories, the painstaking dedication rippling across every canvas, the shared genius rendered in three distinct styles. Who needs wifi when you’ve got Turner’s “The Burning of Parliament”?

As the artist most in the spotlight this winter, with a recent feature film, Turner took his bow first. We took the Tate to Tate ferry up the Thames on a Saturday lunch time, a liquid hors d’oeuvres to whet – and wet – our cultural appetite. Tate Britain is a majestic, solemn slab of grey stone set back from the river, a former hospital that perhaps makes it an appropriate setting for Turner’s late works, derided as those of a mad man with failing eyesight.

Toothless and nearly blind he may have been, but this collection of artwork is deep and warm, bursting with life, each painting gently fluffed and buffeted with loving dabs. Indeed even after his death, George Jones depicts Turner’s coffin radiating golden light. There is a mischief to Turner’s work, as if he is stalking the yellow galleries with you, prompting, cajoling, inviting you to share his amusement.

The penultimate room of the hang shows Turner’s timelessness; a sequence of brightly coloured square and round canvases, his 19th Century Instagrams. He liked to travel too but was terrible with languages so he wrote phrases in a book. I imagine him pointing and gesturing with a curmudgeonly good humour. His works are like a soft old blanket or a grandparent; cosy and comforting, they wrap you up and share stories, but always hinting at something darker.

While Turner travelled, mixing reailty and reverie in painstakingly intricate etchings of Rome and moody Swiss mountains, Constable was perfectly happy in the bountiful meadows of East Bergholt, Suffolk. Somewhere at the back of the V&A, in high-ceilinged rooms of deep blue, a very different British legend is celebrated. This is a great cavernous museum you can wander for hours (we did) and the Constable gallery was mercifully quiet for a Saturday afternoon.

The V&A sets the bar high when it comes to visitor experience. Luxurious shops, endless sculptures and sketching stools aside, they’re also pretty good at the tech stuff. Free wifi, a responsive site and a tablet friendly interactive map. It comes as a surprise then, not to have an audio tour or printed guide for the exhibition. ‘Self guided’ is all very well but sometimes you need nudging through the inevitable moments of gallery fatigue. Both Tate Britain and the National Gallery deployed the classic Antenna International key-in-the-number guides. Simple, yes, and very effective. 

In The Making Of A Master, V&A’s curatorial team quickly set the scene with a floor to ceiling video projection of Constable’s favourite locations as they are today. Hampstead Heath, Salisbury Cathedral and Brighton Beach resplendent under murky skies. Some might find this a gimmick, but it has the effect of transporting us to Constable’s countryside, inviting us to wonder as he did at nature in flow. Nature caught in the act.

From his early years Constable was determined to be recognised as a master of his craft. As a teenager he obsessively studied the effects of light, sketched countless passing clouds and in later years his masterpiece “The Leaping Horse” took shape over many iterations. This show focuses on the artist, his inspiration and his process more than it does on his work. The closing note is a trunk through the ages, starting with Claude Lorraine, then to Constable’s incredible Elm Tree study, and finally Freud’s modern homage. This is the show in a nutshell; some wonderful art but quite a lot of it not Constable’s.

At the National Gallery it’s all about one man and the tone is set in the first room with a brave hanging of four portraits that stare in on visitors from all sides, casting us as Rembrandt himself in a house of mirrors. Handsome and healthy in one image, pallid and greying in one of his last self portraits. It’s a clever technique, much like the giant screen at the V&A, transporting us to the artist’s world.

As you would expect from Trafalgar Square on a Sunday, the National Gallery was busy. Very busy. The only way to navigate between the gloomy antechambers was a sideways shimmy, pausing at precarious angles to peer up into the powerfully melancholic faces of Rembrandt’s subjects. He was the master of emotion, rendering the inner maladies of his sitters with a breathtaking range of strokes, sculpting their struggles into palpable form.

Of all three exhibitions, the Lady was quietest with Rembrandt, focused, transfixed by the stories writ large in dark eyes and parted lips. This exhibition is a Ferrero Roche; golden and creamy, with a curatorial crunch; paintings up close, showing their scratches and dashes, are faultless from afar. The printed guide is difficult to read in the low light but that doesn’t matter. Everything you need to know about Rembdrandt, indeed about humankind, is hung large on the walls.

After an epic battle where art is the clear victor, I should return to the admin. Book up all three and indulge yourself this Christmas.

Late Turner: Paintings Set Free is at Tate Britain until 25 January 2015. Adults £16.50.
(Paintings from 1835 to 1846)

Constable: The Making of a Master is at the V&A until 11 January 2015. General admission £15.40
(Paintings from 1795 to 1830)

Rembrandt: The Late Works is at the National Gallery until 18 January 2015. Adult £16.00
(Paintings from 1650 to 1669)

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