Monday, November 07, 2011

ruskin's powerpoint

My odyssey thru the Library Edition of Ruskin continues. Yesterday I finished volume XIX, The Cestus of Aglaia and The Queen of the Air, with Other Papers and Lectures on Art and Literature, 1860-1870. The obvious course (which I'm taking) is to power on into volume XX (Lectures on Art and Aratra Pentelici, with Lectures and Notes on Greek Art and Mythology, 1870). But really one's confronted with a kind of triune fork in the road of Ruskin's career here, for from 1870 his activities become multiple, & it's no longer possible to maintain anything like strict chronological progression in collecting his work.

In 1870, Ruskin was appointed the first Slade Professor in Art at the University of Oxford, and for several years (until 1878, the date of his first major crack-up) one of his major activities would be be composing the lectures he delivers there. That's usually two series of six or seven lectures each year, which Ruskin took "infinite" pains with, & usually went back and revised for book publication; he published 9 books out of this first stint at the Oxford Professorship.

But at the same time, he was also working on other books and articles, which he published more or less concurrently with his lecture volumes (including no fewer than three travellers' guidebooks to various sites). And he was writing the series of monthly "Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain," Fors Clavigera, which is in some ways the acknowledged telos of my whole reading of Ruskin.

So three major activities at any given time: Oxford duties (which include, besides the lectures, establishing a drawing school and a major collection of specimen works for students); miscellaneous writing (including an incessant series of letters to the press, and a personal correspondence as copious as one would expect from a Victorian writer); and Fors. No wonder the guy broke under the strain.

Ruskin took lecturing very, very seriously. Over the past decade and a half, lectures had become one of his primary means of getting his ideas across to a wide audience, at a variety of venues. And the Victorians were good audiences: they were prepared to attend carefully to what our undergraduates would consider unconscionably long discourses; public lectures were transcribed by reporters and printed in newspapers with remarkable completeness and fidelity.

Ruskin's style of lecturing was memorable. He spoke from a written text – he once told an audience that he had planned to deliver his lecture extemporaneously, but that it was too much trouble to write out what he had to say and memorize it, so they would have to be content with his reading a text – but he would very often depart from his notes, following the thread of whatever idea caught his imagination at the moment. By all accounts he captivated his listeners entirely, tho some confessed themselves entirely unable to remember afterwards what he'd said.

But how, one wonders, does one deliver lectures on art and art history in the pre-PowerPoint, even pre-slide projector era? My own antipathy to PowerPoint runs pretty deep, and having to sit thru two PP presentations earlier this semester has only confirmed it. But I'm pretty willing to believe that it's made the tasks of lecturers in art and architecture far easier; I have just as bad memories of upside-down and reversed slides in my undergraduate art history classes.

Ruskin's own visual aids consisted it seems of lots of sketches and paintings, to which he would point during the lecture, & which would remain on display afterwards for interested students to examine. More useful no doubt were the enlargements of artworks and details of artworks (some of them 250cm X 100cm, which is pretty big), which he had assistants uncover & hold up at crucial moments in his lectures. There were still mishaps: at one point, a sketch from Tintoretto's "Paradise" was displayed upside down; the students laughed. "Ah, well," said the Professor, himself laughing; "what does it matter? for in Tintoret's 'Paradise' you have heaven all round you."

And then there's that moment when Ruskin seems to anticipate all the fancy effects that PP offers: He was bitching about the degradation of modernity, and beside him on an easel was (framed under glass) a Turner watercolor of Leicester.
"The old stone bridge is picturesque," he said, "isn't it? But of course you want something more 'imposing' nowadays. So you shall have it." And taking his paint-box and brush he rapidly sketched in on the glass what is known in modern specifications as "a handsome iron structure." "Then," he continued, "you will want, of course, some tall factory chimneys, and I will give them to you galore." Which he proceeded to do in like fashion. "The blue sky of heaven was pretty, but you cannot have everything, you know." And he painted clouds of black smoke over Turner's sky. "Your 'improvements,'" he went on, are marvellous 'triumphs of modern industry,' I know; but somehow they do not seem to produce nobler men and women, and no modern town is complete, you will admit, without a gaol and a lunatic asylum to crown it. So here they are for you." By which time not an inch of the Turner drawing was left visible under the "improvements" painted upon the glass. "But for my part," said Ruskin, taking his sponge, and with one pass of his hand wiping away those modern improvements against which he has inveighed in so many printed volumes – "for my part, I prefer the old."

1 comment:

Vance Maverick said...

A bit like Crumb's Short History of America, that last bit.