The beginning of the backlash II

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    Participant,16472,1597156,00.htmlSkip the secular rituals of the Turner prize for a real radical The British Museum's exhibition of the painter Samuel Palmer is an exhilarating vision of archaic beauty Simon JenkinsFriday October 21, 2005The Guardian A contestant in the current Turner prize this week made a confession to the London Evening Standard. Jim Lambie said: "I did all that stuff like portraits and drawing at art school and loved it." He thought that most Turner artists could draw "pretty well". But those days were over. Art is not for posterity. At the end of the Tate competition, Lambie's work - masses of coloured tape stuck to the gallery floor - will "go into a skip".Each year I visit the Turner show as a secular ritual. I go partly to feel the rumbling sensation of the old man spinning in his grave beneath my feet. I go also so I can recall for my grandchildren the time when the Tate establishment pulled off one of the greatest confidence tricks in history.The little ones will sit on my knee and ask: "But grandad, how did the man Serota get away with it?" I shall tell them sagely that there is nothing on earth you cannot achieve if your hand is rammed deep enough in the taxpayer's pocket. You can dump turds on a gallery floor and still have half-witted art critics purring delight, terrified at the thought of losing favour and a dinner invitation.In addition I can catch up on that tangential art form, the Turner prize caption. This involves some valiant soul struggling to hide the banality of it all behind a smokescreen of meaningless pomposity. Artists no longer create but "raise issues round..."; they "ask questions about modern consumerism" and "concern themselves within the encounter between viewer and work." This week a bicycle with a rocket taped to its wheel "caught the attention of the judges". A contestant does not paint but "interrogates". This distancing of art from the public is sure sign of a culture that has lost its way.This year we have the big tease. In among the sheds, bicycles, rambling home videos and sticky tape, the Tate's Sir Nicholas Serota has included some real pictures, by Gillian Carnegie. Whether he wants to ridicule painting by association with junk or whether some great artistic reformation is at hand, only the gods can tell.Most of Carnegie's canvases are like those you can see most summers at the Royal Academy show. To get on the shortlist (and into the newspapers), Carnegie has felt obliged to bend over forwards and depict her naked buttocks in close-up. But one wall is hung with a lovely work, a wistful landscape of woods and trees. It is like bumping into a ballerina at a late-night Tessa Jowell bingeing session. I felt an urge to grab the picture and take it somewhere safe. At the risk of wrecking Carnegie's career, I would say that her painting is a good one, in the fine tradition of English landscape art.That old tradition, you might jeer. Just so, I would reply, the tradition whose greatest exponent has had his identity stolen to give respectability to the Tate's joke. When Jim Lambie remarks in passing that any Turner contestant can draw a face, but, by implication, it takes a prize-winning genius to lay strips of sticky tape on the floor, my inclination is to cry "Prove it". The Turner judges would not dare call his bluff, but at least they have let Carnegie do so. I hope she wins.Meanwhile respite is at hand. Outside the Tate runs the great 88 bus. I have long felt its ancient odyssey across London (from Merton to Acton via the West End) merited a Turner prize for "raising issues round vehicular prioritisation in modern routing policy". The 88 has since been horribly truncated, but it still carries lucky patrons north from the Tate to the borders of Bloomsbury. There in the caverns of the British Museum they can witness an artistic explosion that reduces the Turner prize to an inaudible pop.This week the British Museum offers the first ever major exhibition of the most exhilarating and underrated member of the landscape tradition of which Carnegie is a lingering echo, Samuel Palmer (1805-1881). I have admired this artist all my life. But nothing prepared me for this show, as uplifting as the Turner is depressing, as radical as the Turner is conventional.Palmer was a student of William Blake, an admirer of Wordsworth, a precursor of the pre-Raphaelites, and a pious, passionate man. He was not a star, like his contemporary Turner. His vision of the English countryside had none of Turner's vast skies and grandiose flourishes. Palmer's landscape was introspective, claustrophobic, almost animist. He embodied the Romantics' cry that men made the town but God made the country.The museum is showing all his major works. There are those favourites of the sixties psychedelics, The Magic Apple Tree and In a Shoreham Garden, fruit and leaves dancing before the eyes, brilliant with pointilliste colour. There is the gothic Coming from Evening Church, the inky twilight "blacks" of early morning and late evening, and the final etchings illustrating Virgil. Everywhere is countryside. To the spiritual Palmer, "souls are the soil, conviction is the ploughman".I do not share Palmer's religious vision or his reactionary politics. His opposition to the 1832 Reform Act and his view that England should revert to a medieval idyll of rustic shepherds, toiling farmers and fruitful hillsides was silly. Irresistible is the sheer intensity of his palette, the glorying in colour, the lushness and the luminosity of contours. If Palmer's vision was archaic, his means of expressing it was modern. His treatment is impressionist, the composition often surreal. Palmer was studied and imitated by Piper, Sutherland, Nash, Minton and Moore. There was hardly a 20th-century British artist in whose work we cannot see traces of him.Palmer saw in nature images no other artist saw, the voluptuousness of a cornfield at dawn, the huge intensity of a harvest moon, the energy of corn bursting from the ground or fruit from a tree. In his old age other icons crowded Palmer's mind. His dead son was symbolised by a lonely tower on a hill at dusk, a candle lit in its window. Yeats wrote of such towers as ones in which Milton's philosopher might have sat, or Shelley's visionary prince, lost amid "the lonely light that Samuel Palmer engraved/ An image of mysterious wisdom won by toil".In the museum catalogue, William Vaughan writes that Palmer remains, as he always was, an outsider. Like his heroes, Milton and Wordsworth, he is still "not much in vogue in modish, critical and academic circles". His inspiration is too religious and his message politically incorrect. Yet Vaughan rightly accords him the title of "first ecologist" and sees in his vision of rural England values that the British are slowly coming to appreciate. It is countryside as more than woods, trees and leisure pursuits, but seasons, rhythms and visual repose. Above all, it is beautiful.I am sure some relativist will tell me that the Turner contestants are the Palmers of tomorrow, that I should be open-minded to their message. I can only refer to my mind's eye. No, they are not Samuel Palmer, and never will be.

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