Alex Davis writes in from Cork, commenting on the “Slave Ship” passage from Ruskin’s Modern Painters I:
Much as I admire this passage too, Mark, it's extraordinary that Ruskin argues--in effect--that the horrific subject matter is merely a footnote to the painting's style. There's a fine poem by David Dabydeen, _Turner_, that focuses on this dimension to the painting (and his Preface is well worth reading too). You might also want to look at the relevant pages in Lee M. Jenkins's _Boundaries of Expression_, in which she discusses this issue.I don’t have immediate access to Dabydeen’s poem, which I’ll certainly check out, as well as Jenkins’s book.
It’s true that Ruskin only mentions the painting’s “horrific subject matter” in his own footnote – there’s no overt note of it in the long description I quoted below. But I don’t think I’m the first to notice that Ruskin’s description isn’t strictly a formalistic one, that his rhetoric is deeply inflamed (sorry) by what reads to me like indignation about what the painting depicts. The ship’s “thin masts [are] written upon the sky in lines of blood, girded with condemnation” – and what could that be but moral condemnation? – “in that fearful hue which signs the sky with horror, and mixes its flaming flood with the sunlight, and, cast far along the desolate heave of the sepulchral waves, incarnadines the multitudinous sea.” The very word “incarnadines” – not just a $5 term for “makes red,” but Lady Macbeth’s coinage in the depths of her guilt and self-accusation – would seem to inject more than an undercurrent of fierce evangelical rage into the description.
As I read it, then, Ruskin’s description, more than just being a set piece of “purple” oratory (and it does read as if it were composed to be recited), is pretty deeply inflected by moral indignation; indeed, Turner’s own composition doesn’t particularly draw attention to its horrific subject – except in its title, and once one knows the title, then the flaming redness of the waves becomes all the more significant.
Next: Modern Painters, Volume II
Did I mention that I wasted a couple of hours over the vacation reading (for what I suspect was the first time) CS Lewis's The Lion, the witch etc.? Far more enjoyable were the two hours spent last night re-reading The Wizard of Oz, which isn't written down to kids.