Wednesday, May 11, 2011

ruskin: turner

One of the more disconcerting aspects of reading thru the Library Edition of Ruskin – as yes, I am still doing – is the complicated balancing act editors Wedderburn & Cook have done between a chronological & a thematic, or work-based, arrangement. They've tried to arrange his works in roughly chronological order, but have also kept his multi-volume works (Modern Painters, Stones of Venice) together. Since Ruskin took an ungodly long time to finish the five volumes of Modern Painters, writing a bunch of stuff in between, it's been a complicated dance reading thru his works in more or less the order he wrote them.

I began at the beginning – Juvenilia, Volume I – then on to the Poems (Vol. II) and the first 2 volumes of MP (III & IV). At which point Ruskin shifted attention to architecture & Venice, and I shifted forward to Seven Lamps of Architecture (Vol. VIII), the 3 volumes of Stones of Venice (IX, X, & XI), and the lectures that more or less go along with Stones (Vol. XII). Then he returned to Modern Painters, for two further volumes (Vol. V & VI).

So I finished Modern Painters 4 a number of weeks ago, a mediation mostly on mountain geology – or so it seems in retrospect – with a few thoughts on Turner along the way. And I'm all ready to launch into the final volume of the work, when I realize I need to trawl ahead across my shelves to Library Edition Vol. XIII, which is comprised more or less of miscellaneous writings on Turner, most of them produced as a byproduct of Ruskin's being named one of the executors of Turner's will, & spending time cataloguing & sorting Turner's bequest of his paintings, drawing, & sketches to the nation. Modern Painters 4 was finished in 1856; Ruskin didn't publish Modern Painters 5 until 1860. And between those dates, he published enough material to fill four more volumes of the Library Edition (XIII – XVI). So I may or may not complete my long haul thru MP by the end of this year. We'll see.

At any rate, Vol. XIII is thus far rather interesting. The introduction is frankly fascinating, treating as it does Ruskin's work on the Turner bequest, the immense sift of sketches and drawings – thousands upon thousands – left behind in Turner's studio and dwelling. (The Library Edition has the most meaty introductions of any scholarly edition I've ever met; they're really a running biography of Ruskin, & were indeed packaged as such by ET Cook after the LE was finished.) The first real "work" in the volume is The Harbours of England, which amounts to descriptive copy Ruskin wrote for a series of 12 reproductions of Turner seascapes.

It all made me realize how little I really know about Turner (tho I went to the fantastic Turner exhibition year before last at the Metropolitan Museum, & like everyone else was blown away), so I pulled down & read the only Turner book handy – Graham Reynolds's Turner in the "World of Art" (now Thames & Hudson, my own copy OUP) series. A quick & satisfying read, tho the color reproductions in this copy are execrable. There are a few moments of nice prose:
After [Fingal's Cave] remained unsold for thirteen years, C.R. Leslie chose it for James Lenox, whose first reaction was disappointment at its indistinctness. When Turner heard this he made the famous reply: 'You should tell him that indistinctness is my forte.' [My new favorite quotation of the moment]

Yet more private were the sketchbooks in which Turner made compositions of couples in bed, and other Priapic subjects. It is one of the pleasanter ironies of history that Ruskin, who was not conspicuous for matrimonial success, was obliged to review these frankly lustful scenes amidst all the drawings in the Turner Bequest. He inscribed one sketchbook of this kind with the words, 'They are kept as evidence of failure of mind only.'
Paging thru the rest of Library Edition XIII & sampling what amounts to Ruskin's catalogue copy, however, makes me realize how much I enjoy reading art catalogues in general. So I've turned a quarter of my attention to Jane Ferrington's excellent 1980 Wyndham Lewis, a catalogue of a massive Manchester City Galleries exhibition. It makes me want to get out my paints and canvases.

Is it any wonder I never get anything significant done? Well, I did review Marjorie Perloff's latest here, and have just read proofs for a couple of things due out soonest. Word on the street has it that the new Parnassus is out with my essay on Guy Davenport, but I haven't gotten my copies yet.

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