Sunday, October 13, 2013

Reading Ruskin candidly - none of these things very glorious

Ruskin is arguing that “Letters are always ugly things,” meaning in paintings, not in a book.  Maybe also in a book.  This is in Volume 5, Chapter 7, “Of Vulgarity.”  In a long footnote attached to this point, Ruskin finally answers a question of mine:

I do not wonder at people sometimes thinking I contradict myself when  they come suddenly on any of the scattered passages, in which I am forced to insist on the opposite practical applications of subtle principles of this kind.

Ruskin traces his ideas about the ugliness of letters through a number of texts, or actually insists that I do the same, after which “you… will be brought, I hope, into a wholesome state of not knowing what to think.”  Suitably confused, I am prepared to read a few more passages in The Stones of Venice and thus to a resolution, maybe:

If truths of apparent contrary character are candidly and rightly received, they will fit themselves together in the mind without any trouble.  But no truth maliciously received will nourish you, or fit with others.

Oh, so it’s my fault, is it?  But perhaps it is.  How should I read Ruskin (or anyone) if not candidly?

Ruskin ends Modern Painters with a chapter titled “Peace,” his openly religious call for social change (“When the time comes for us to wake out of the world’s sleep, why should it be otherwise than out of the dreams of the night?”).  A few chapters earlier, though, is an alternative, non-Utopian argument, Chapter 9, “The Two Boyhoods.”

One boy is Giorgione, the other Turner.  Giorgione grows up in 15th century Venice, surrounded by beauty, constantly confronted with beauty, natural and man-made.  “All ruins were removed, and its place filled as quickly as in our London; but filled always by architecture loftier and more wonderful than that whose place it took, the boy himself happy to work upon the walls of it,” for example.  Thus the Venetian kid becomes the painter Giorgione.

Now, Turner.

Ruskin directs me to his childhood home in Covent Garden – “a square brick pit,” “a few rays of light,” “an iron gate,” “a narrow door,” a window “filled in this year (1860), with a row of bottles.”  “No knights to be seen there, nor, I imagine, many beautiful ladies”:

of things beautiful, besides men and women, dusty sunbeams up or down the street on summer mornings; deep furrowed cabbage leaves at the greengrocer’s; magnificence of oranges in wheelbarrows round the corner; and Thames’ shore within three minutes’ race.

None of these things very glorious; the best, however, that England, it seems, was then able to provide for a boy of gift…

Here Ruskin sees Turner’s attraction to ugliness, like “anything fishy or muddy… black barges, patched sails, and every possible condition of fog.”  One might think that the words “beauty” and “ugliness” are being overstretched.  “No Venetian ever draws anything foul; but Turner devoted picture after picture to the illustration of effects of dinginess, smoke, soot, dust, and dusty texture;  old sides of boats, weedy roadside vegetation, dung-hills, straw yards, and all the soilings and stains of every common labor.”

That Turner also develops an unusual sympathy for the poor, and for seafaring stuff (sailors, masts – “better for the boy than wood of pine, or grove of myrtle”) is more conventional biography.  Turner becomes not vulgar but “very tolerant of vulgarity,” this because of “the original make and frame of [his] mind… as nearly as possible a combination of the minds of Keats and Dante.”

Yet after all of this Turner becomes Ruskin’s Turner only after a chance summer in the Yorkshire hills, where he discovers “Loveliness at last…  Beauty, and freedom, and peace…”; in other words, landscape.

So taught, and prepared for his life’s labor, sate the boy at last alone among his fair English hills; and began to paint, with cautious toil, the rocks, and fields, and trickling brooks, and soft, white clouds of heaven.

It is all a mystery, then, although partly visible in retrospect.  The artist of genius creates with whatever is at hand.  Sometimes the result is beautiful.  The critic of genius studies the artist and – what does he do?  He writes a great chapter in a great book, I am sure of that.


  1. Great series of posts on Ruskin.

    If I understand Ruskin's aesthetic theory, I am of a different opinion. I find great merit in depictions of "anything fishy or muddy… black barges, patched sails, and every possible condition of fog." Of course I also find merit in landscapes, lofty architecture, etc. I know that this is a complex and old debate that has its hooks in all sorts of art and philosophy.

    Despite my quibbling with his ideas, I love these ruminations on art beauty and ugliness and am very happy that folks like Ruskin expressed himself so.

  2. In other passages, Ruskin mocks the great landscape artists of the past for their "hatred of fog" (and inability to depict it). If Turner paints it, it has merit. Ruskin notes Turner's fascination with "litter" - jumbled stones, sea wrack - and traces it back to Turner's childhood, but Ruskin could just as well use the idea to support his argument about Turner's superior sight, the completeness of his landscapes.

    Part of my argument against using beauty as a universal label of aesthetic interest is that ugliness and grotesquerie can also be of high interest. Many other not necessarily beautiful categories, too, like irony. Ruskin does not have this problem. He means something distinct by "beauty," even if he and I have a hard time figuring out exactly what he means.

  3. "Letters are always ugly" makes sense from the man who also had trouble with women's bodies.

    As all writers know, letters, even and especially in paintings, are beautiful.

  4. I can think of counter-examples to that last point (e/g/>, Jasper Johns, Norman Rockwell), but I suspect there is an underlying difference in the meaning of "beauty" here. Of course that is what I always suspect. Numbers in paintings are presumably similarly beautiful?

    "Titian always wanted a certain quantity of ugliness to oppose his beauty with, as a certain quantity of black to oppose his color." That is plausible, but it does not answer the Why letters? question.