Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Ruskin's fantasia on a grain of sand - poor, helpless, mica flake!

Mountain beauty, cloud beauty, leaf beauty – what is all of this doing in John Ruskin’s Modern Painters?  Why all of the diagrams of striated cliffs and parts of trees (Chapter 4: “The Bud,” Ch. 5: “The Leaf,” Ch. 6: “The Branch”)?

To judge a painting of a peak or tree, the critics must understand peaks and trees.  He must see them as they are and understand what he is seeing, not see them as they are conventionally represented.  For most people, including Ruskin, this requires a scientific understanding of natural phenomena.  A few geniuses, like J. M. W. Turner or Titian, see everything intuitively, or through their own eye training.  Ruskin and I have to work harder.  Most landscape painters, including some of the supposed greats, do not understand what they are seeing.  That is Ruskin’s argument.

A piece of Modern Painters like Volume 4 (“Mountain Beauty”), Chapter 16 (“Resulting Forms: Thirdly, Precipices”) is really about what the title claims, precipices, those of the Swiss Alps, and how they are formed by erosion and the movement of tectonic plates.  Ruskin does not know of the existence of the plates, but he does a good job of identifying the gaps in his own knowledge, allowing me to fill some of them in a little.

Sometimes Ruskin’s writing – I will stay with the precipices – is cleanly precise, as with this glacier: “Higher up, the ice opens into broad white fields and furrows, hard and dry, scarcely fissured at all.”  But then the glacier becomes something else as Ruskin invokes an empty street “of tombs in a buried city,”

the whole scene so changeless and soundless; so removed, not merely from the presence of men, but even from their thoughts; so destitute of all life of tree or herb, and so immeasurable in its lonely brightness of majestic death, that it looks like a world from which not only the human, but the spiritual, presences had perished, and the last of its archangels, building the great mountains for their monuments, had laid themselves down in the sunlight to an eternal rest, each in his white shroud.

Ruskin has interwoven some kind of fantasy novel with his precipices.  Soon he is hiking up the Matterhorn, pausing to listen to the Alps, “these wrinkled hills in their snowy, cold, grey-haired old age, at first so silent, then, as we keep quiet at their feet, muttering and whispering to us garrulously, in broken and dreaming fits, as it were, about their childhood” before imagining them as their components, “little flakes of mica-sand…  almost too small for sight.”  If one of these flakes “could have a mind given to it” (yes, if!) as it passed through the ages, “laid, (would it not have thought?) for a hopeless eternity, in the dark ooze, the most despised, forgotten, and feeble of all atoms” – Ruskin is, remember, following a sentient grain of sand:

what would it have thought, had it been told that one day, knitted into a strength as of imperishable iron, rustless by the air, infusible by the flame, out of the substance of it, with its fellows, the axe of God should hew that Alpine tower; that against I – poor, helpless, mica flake! – the wild north winds should rage in vain; beneath it – low-fallen mica flake! – the snowy hills should lie bowed like flocks of sheep, and the kingdoms of the earth fade away in unregarded blue; and around it – weak, wave-drifted mica flake! – the great war of the firmament should burst in thunder, and yet stir it not; and the fiery arrows and angry meteors of the night fall blunted back from it into the air; and all the stars in the clear heaven should light, one by one as they rose, new cressets upon the points of snow that fringed its abiding-place on the imperishable spire?

The grain of sand ends up on the tip of the Matterhorn is what happened there, for those who lost the thread.  This is not exactly how geology is taught now (or then), but it is effective in its own way.

One of the great pleasures of reading Ruskin, is what this sort of thing is.  Unpaintable, the author declares in the next paragraph, “beyond [the landscape painter’s] power – even beyond Turner’s.”  I believe Ruskin is right about that.


  1. You read some fascinating books!

    Rushkin seems to fly in the face of those who contend that too much scientific or technical knowledge can ruin the appreciation beauty. While I would not go as far as he does I am of that such knowledge can enhance such appreciation.

  2. Yes, Ruskin correctly sees knowledge as enhancing appreciation. The Romantic narcissists who think otherwise need to get to work and learn something.

    I guess I do go as far as Ruskin!

  3. Oh I love the glacier description and the mica thoughts. Why did I always imagine Ruskin was dry? This is marvelous stuff! Does he only cover landscape painting or does he do figure painting as well? And if so, does his belief carryover into knowing how the human body works (or even animals) in order to see and paint it correctly?

  4. Good question. I am sure it is good because I have wondered myself. The answer is: no figure painting at all. None in The Elements of Drawing either: "Of figure drawing, nothing is said in the following pages, because I do not think figures, as chief subjects, can be drawn to any good purpose by an amateur."

    As for dry, Ruskin can be dry, particularly when he is being systematic. But then there are these amazing flights. To see effervescent Ruskin, I recommend this bit of a letter by A. E. Housman, where he describes Ruskin as a teacher. It is wild. Ruskin paints over a Turner.

    1. He says, in Love's Meinie, that knowing how to paint a person is more important than knowing how to paint a bird -- "Holbein paints men gloriously, but never looks at birds; Gibbons, the wood-cutter, carves birds, but can't men; -- of the two faults the last is the worst" -- but this is in the middle of a book about the anatomy of birds. Just before that you have a couple of passages that, to me (along with things he's written), suggest that the idea of studying human animals in a scientific, anatomical, geographical way, was so disturbing to him that there was no way he could have addressed it without feeling that he was violating something sacred.

    2. That is an eminently Ruskin-like reason.

      I had no idea - three lectures on birds. What a bad title, though. "'Meinie' is the old English word for 'Many,' in the sense of 'a many' persons attending one, as bridesmaids, when in sixes or tens or dozens." Ruskin had a gift for cryptic titles.

    3. He did. It's one of his indwelling strangenesses that he can, on one hand, believe that he wants to have an honest straightforward practical talk to the common working man, and, on the other hand, believe that it's a good idea to call it Fors Clavigera for reasons so gnomic that he has to explain them. "My system ... is absolutely consistent throughout," he tells the audience, two paragraphs before that sentence about Gibbons and Holbein, and he ridicules or belittles the idea of studying human anatomy, "I don't mean, by telling you not to study human anatomy, that you are not to know how many fingers and toes you have," and then he tells them that Holbein's people are more important than birds, and yet at no point does he think that just knowing how many fingers or toes a bird has, is sufficient. Then we're on Homer and he's changed the subject and the lecture ends. He's consistently contradictory throughout, is what he is. (But the other contradictory thing is that he's right, he's doing the right thing or the correct thing, because he wouldn't be Ruskin if he didn't do the opposite of the thing he wanted to do, and go against his own stated or semi-stated intentions. He is such a knot.)

    4. How many fingers does a bird have? Never mind that.

      I have a fine quote by Ruskin, from Modern Painters, on his self-contradictions that I should try to work into tomorrow's post.