Monday, August 23, 2010

Ruskin lectures

The first day of classes – well, the 1st class, day 1 of Milton – is over, & went fairly well. You know: I read the syllabus, made them turn off their little electronic toys, read them the riot act about getting up & going out for potty breaks, & tried to assure them that they wouldn't be spending the next 15 weeks in the presence of a lunatic (at least not me; I can't vouch for Milton). And then launched into a 45-minute capsule summary of Western cultural history from the birth of Xrist thru the beginning of the 17th century.

The aim was not wholly to drive away those of lesser fortitude, but if I lose a few folks who aren't interested in Renaissance Humanism or the politics of the Reformation or the doctrines of Calvinism & Arminianism – well, I won't shed too many tears.
I seem to have reached a watershed in the Ruskin reading, having finished the 3rd & final volume of The Stones of Venice the other day. (I'm reading roughly chronologically, by the way, so I will return to Modern Painters III – V.) And suddenly, mirabile dictu, the shape of the man's career & thought is falling into place for me. Now I've always admitted to being a really slow learner: I've read some of these books a couple of times now, & have read a half-shelf of Ruskin studies & biographies – but only now do I feel firmly in grasp of the direction of the career. So, to recap:

Modern Painters I (1843): everybody who's ever painted landscape has traduced its actual appearance – until JMW Turner, who is the greatest landscape painter of all time; acres of examples of how things really look, & how they've been faked by Poussin et al.

Modern Painters II (1846): an aesthetic theory to buttress the art criticism of the previous book: things are beautiful to our eyes because they possess certain relationships/shapes/colors that manifest aspects of the deity ("ideal beauty"); and they're beautiful because they manifest healthy life ("vital beauty")

Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), Stones of Venice (Part I, 1851, II & III, 1853): architecture is meant to delight the eye, to provide visual pleasure – therefore the mere act of putting up buildings is not architecture at all but "building": true architecture lies in ornament, sculpture, coloring; Gothic architecture is the true Xtian architecture, debased by Renaissance neo-Classicism; we can trace the spiritual course of the Venetian republic thru its architecture, at its greatest when the city is pious, falling into Renaissance decay when the city becomes decadent; modern architecture turns the eye of the beholder away from nature, deprives him of the vital aesthetic pleasure; and simultaneously, in its insistence on repetition and uniformity, it reduces the workman to a machine, rather than a fully autonomous human being (“Nature of Gothic”)

So it's here, in the "Nature of Gothic" chapter of Stones II, that one sees the beginnings of Ruskin's decisive turn towards social issues that will flower in the magnificent Unto This Last and find its dotty apotheosis in Fors Clavigera. A kind of cusp in his thinking.

To tell the truth, much of this is summed up beautifully & in a very user-friendly manner in his 1853 Lectures on Architecture and Painting, which he delivered in Edinburgh. Ruskin was by no means a practiced lecturer at this point (tho later in his life the lecture would become his preferred format of communication, and his books became largely collections of his lectures – like Helen Vendler's, say): this was his first go, & he was surprised at his success.

There are four lectures in the 1853 series. The first two present the kernel of both Seven Lamps and Stones in a handy two-hour stretch. The third reiterates his assessment of Turner (ie summarizing much of Modern Painters thus far). And the fourth represents his latest "find," the painters of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – Rossetti, Holman Hunt, Millais, etc. In the face of all sorts of public rejection of the PRB, Ruskin asserts that they are in essence pursuing the same goal as Turner (whom he calls "the first Pre-Raphaelite"): the accurate representation of visual reality. While Turner was going after the appearance of things thru something like proto-Impressionism, the PRB were doing a sort of photorealism avant la lettre: but the ultimate goal is the same – to get at what God's creation actually looks like.

I'm hankering to get a few volumes further down the line to where Ruskin finally sheds his rather irritating Evangelicism, stops beating on the Whore of Babylon and so forth. But these lectures, after the rather heavy going of some of Stones of Venice (volume I, after all, is a sort of extended primer on the principles of architecture, from the floor to the roof), are really an energizing breath of fresh air. Heaven knows why they aren't in print somewhere.

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