The Arts: Narrow View of a Broad Mind ; in His Long Life the Visionary Victorian John Ruskin Was Many Things (Including Misleading and Possibly Mad) and Passionately Interested in a Vast Range of Subjects. but You Won't Learn That from the Tate's Exhibition Marking the Centenary of His Death. by Tom Lubbock
Lubbock, Tom, The Independent (London, England)
John Ruskin died 100 years ago. He's not as forgotten as he once was. There are quite a few books about him, even a few books by him, in print. But I guess the great Victorian art critic, sage and prophet still stands as a bit of a loony: the sex problems, the amateur road-building projects, the unresting moralism, the twee superstitions. His contemporaries also thought him mad - as when he got a strange bee in his bonnet about the iniquities of capitalism. And, of course, his mental health was not all that it might have been; manic-depressive, maybe. In his last 15 years, his mind closed down almost completely. People are always trying to revive him.
Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites is the Tate Gallery's centenary show. I don't think it will help. It stresses Ruskin's artistic side. It includes art by the PRB and Turner that Ruskin championed, praised and bought when it was being attacked, and art - such as Whistler's - that Ruskin attacked himself. It shows many of Ruskin's own transfixedly observant drawings of Venetian architecture, of pieces of rock, of trees and skies, and also his idealising images of Rose La Touche (one of his obsessional junior love-objects) and his can-hardly-bear-to-look self- portraits. It has some of the crappy Renaissance paintings Ruskin collected. And everything has a label by it, with a short, relevant quotation from Ruskin's writings.
So the exhibition makes an art-show of Ruskin, and a perfectly pleasant and efficient art-show it is. It's well displayed. It touches in a little bit of "life" and some "ideas", strictly and neatly within the bounds of a conventional art-show. And since it's full of pre-Raphaelite paintings, it will never be short of visitors. And really, it is no good at all.
How could the Tate do Ruskin's centenary so narrowly, when what is so plain and admirable about him is that his enthusiasms in art are inextricable from all his other passionate interests? Rocks and mountains, the green world, animals, the weather, fundamentalist Christianity, paganism, the wrongs of industrialisation and economics, fairies, adult education, justice, the divine, natural and social orders, and an eye for signs, symbols and correspondences that is medieval going on paranoid - that's some of the Ruskin repertoire, at least. And something of its breadth, connectedness and energy should be exhibited.
Am I saying that the show should actually include rocks and plants? Obviously. That's the minimum Ruskin lesson. "You will never love art well, till you love what she mirrors better." Yes, it should include hunks of Ruskin's beloved gneiss rock and, if possible, trees and pieces of architecture, too - surely there's something in the V&A's vast collection. Even to juxtapose some plants, some drawings of plants, and some of Ruskin's analysis and interpretation (with diagrams) of plant structure from The Elements of Drawing - to give the viewer's eye just that preliminary exercise in Ruskinian looking - would immediately take you further into Ruskin than you travel in the whole length of this exhibition.
Or take a case of straight art criticism. Here is Turner's apocalyptic seascape Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying - Typhoon Coming on, and next to it a little caption stuck to the wall, an extract of Ruskin's opinion: "The noblest sea that Turner has ever painted, and if so, the noblest ever painted by man... Its daring conception, ideal in the highest sense, is based on the purest truth, wrought with a concentrated knowledge of life." What happens? You turn between the two, and notice discrepancy - one that the picture, naturally, "wins". You think: bit over the top there, JR. Purest truth? What, that foreground cameo of Disney fishes in a feeding frenzy? I don't think so. The words become simply a misleading commentary.
Sure, Ruskin is a misleading commentator. …