Sunday, July 09, 2006

Reading Ruskin (Modern Painters, Volume I)

Okay, so we’re back, as of this afternoon. An exhausting but on the whole pleasant trip. I didn’t manage to work in much literary visiting, but we did get in visits with friends including the archivist at the Kurt Weill Foundation; a couple who are an art historian/poet & a children’s book illustrator; another who are a sociologist who writes gay-themed murder mysteries & an astonishing quilt artist; a disability studies critic; & various family friends including an artist & some political activists. And even a couple of play dates for the girls.

Yes, I made it to the Strand, where I picked up a big stack of poetry books (I only do this once or twice a year, so guilt at overconsumption is minimal). Let me know what I should read first:
Stephen Rodefer, Mon Canard
Lissa Wolsak, Pen Chants
Anne Waldman, Marriage: A Sentence
Allen Grossman, How to do Things with Tears
Martha Ronk, In a Landscape of Having to Repeat
---, Eyetrouble
Mervyn Peake, A Book of Nonsense
Carla Harryman, Baby
Ann Lauterbach, Before Recollection
John Kinsella, Visitants
Dan Featherston, Into the Earth
Fanny Howe, Gone
Barbara Einzig, Distance Without Distance
CD Wright, Steal Away: Selected & New Poems
Plus a bunch of criticism & allsorts. (Among the allsorts, in the Bryn Mawr bookshop in New Haven, a very cool find: Adorno & Hanns Eisler’s Composing for the Films.)
In a foolish moment I said something about blogging my way thru Ruskin. So here goes, keeping in mind that these are personal notes, impressions, etc, & should not be taken for serious critical assessments (much less informed assessments):

Ruskin began Modern Painters as an essay in response to the bad press JMW Turner was receiving from British art critics, & that essay metastasized into a 350-page book on the principles of landscape painting. The book’s basic thesis is pretty simple: the landscape painter has a moral obligation to remain true to the visual appearances of what he paints – that truth is the measure of his value as a witness to the visible creation (& therefore to the work of a divine creator).

The “ancients” – by which JR means the “old masters” of the Renaissance & the French & Dutch schools of the 17th and 18th centuries – flagrantly disregarded how nature actually looks, instead relying upon painterly convention to represent mountains, rocks, clouds, trees, etc. Only a few contemporary painters, preëminent among them Turner, have truly captured nature on their canvases. So far as the painting of landscape goes, Turner is the greatest painter who has ever lived, tho his work has been consistently attacked by critics & audiences who base their evaluation, not on the actual appearance of nature, but upon the conventionalities of received art.

2 aspects of Modern Painters I stand out in my mind:
•How JR makes me aware of the degree to which our perceptions of things are conditioned by representations of these things, by the paintings we have seen & lingered upon.
•The enormous care & acuity with which Ruskin describes – the bulk of the book – the way things actually look: how the diameter of a tree trunk never diminishes unless a bough has laterally budded from it; how the reflection of the sun on the water is broken up into fragments in the direction of the waves’ movement; how no two clouds follow precisely the same lines, tho they may be driven by the same wind; how (for pages & pages) foam forms upon waves & breakers (tho JR concedes this phenomenon is ultimately uncapturable on canvas).

The money quote, describing Turner’s famous 1840 Slave Ship, which depicts a slaver casting overboard its human cargo in the face of a storm (this sort of thing, by the way, is what gets JR’s prose labelled “purple” – but it’s a gorgeous color indeed):
It is a sunset on the Atlantic, after prolonged storm; but the storm is partially lulled, and the torn and streaming rain-clouds are moving in scarlet lines to lose themselves in the hollow of the night. The whole surface of the sea included in the picture is divided into two ridges of enormous swell, not high, nor local, but a low broad heaving of the entire ocean, like the lifting of its bosom by deep-drawn breath after the torture of the storm. Between tehse two ridges the fire of the sunset falls along the trough of the sea, dyeing it with an awful but glorious light, the intense and lurid splendour which burns like gold, and bathes like blood. Along this fiery path and valley, the tossing waves by which the swell of the sea is restlessly divided, lift themselves in dark, indefinite, fantastic forms, each casting a faint and ghastly shadow behind it along the illumined foam. They do not rise everywhere, but three or four together in wild groups, fitfully and furiously, as the under strengh of the swell compels or permits them; leaving behind them treacherous spaces of level and whirling water, now lighted with green and lamp-like fire, now flashing back the gold of the declining sun, now fearfully dyed from above with the undistinguishable images of the burning clouds, which fall upon them in flakes of crimson and scarlet, and give to the reckless waves the added motion of their own fiery flying. Purple and blue, the lurid shadows of the hollow breakers are cast upon the mist of night, which gathers cold and low, advancing like the shadow of death upon the guilty ship as it labours amidst the lightning of the sea, its thin masts written upon the sky in lines of blood, girded with 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.


Alex Davis said...

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.

Tom said...

Does JR discuss Turner's "Peace: Burial at Sea" in this volume? I've become fairly obsessed with this work and am looking for some good critical commentary on it. Not much luck so far, just a few general bits re the context of painting, ie, death of fellow artist/friend. Thanks!