Magazine article The Spectator

Through Ruskin's Eyes

Magazine article The Spectator

Through Ruskin's Eyes

Article excerpt

'The pretension of a great critic,' wrote Walter Sickert kindly of John Ruskin, is not like the pretension of the ridiculous modern being called an expert. A great critic does not stand or fall by immunity from error.' That is, in Ruskin's case, just as well, since the great man certainly came some spectacular, belly-flopping croppers. On the whole, the exhibition currently at the Tate - Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites (until 28 May) - is made up of art and artists of whom he approved (himself among them). But a show much bigger and at least equally distinguished could be made up of stuff Constable, Canaletto, classical architecture, baroque - that he loathed and excoriated.

As Sickert pointed out, however, art criticism is not the same kind of activity as tipping horses. All critics ignore winners and back losers, and nobody thinks the worse of them for it. Indeed, it seems to be a natural - if not inevitable - result of being hugely enthusiastic about some things that one should be correspondingly blind to their opposites. So at least Ruskin bet the ranch on Turner, even if he was fatuously obtuse about Whistler's 'Falling Rocket'.

Nor does it matter that Ruskin was frequently absurd, or, as Philip Hensher put it trenchantly in last week's Spectator, that he was 'a complete twit'. 'A certain girlish petulance of style that distinguished Ruskin,' Sickert remarked in the same passage that I quoted earlier, 'is not altogether a defect. It served to irritate and fix attention, where a more evenly judicious writer might have remained unread.' (It's hard not to think of the art critic of the Evening Standard on reading that.)

Ruskin wrote enough eloquent and arresting things to inspire Marcel Proust and, more recently, Peter Fuller among many others. It does not matter that he was erratic in judgment, absurdly over-vehement and wrote shelves of inconsequential and barely sane bombast (how many people alive, I wonder, have read all 39 volumes of the Cook and Wedderburn edition?).

No, the worrying question raised by the Tate show is whether a critic's views are exhibitable at all. One can, of course, collect together a lot of work of which the critic approved - which is more or less what has happened here, with the bonus that Ruskin was himself a minor but distinguished watercolourist and draughtsman. But do these judiciously selected Turners, Millais and Holman-Hunts truly illustrate Ruskin's views of art and life?

Only up to a point, I think. One problem is that critics tend to misunderstand artists - and the more elaborate a theoretical position they adopt, the more they tend to distort. One of the very few other critics around whom one could mount an exhibition such as this was the American Clement Greenberg. Just as Ruskin supported Turner, Greenberg supported Jackson Pollock. But it is also fairly clear that Greenberg misunderstood Pollock, fitting him into his own work of art, his theory.

Similarly, Ruskin revered and re-fashioned Turner, declaring that he 'was sent as a prophet of God to reveal to men the mysteries of His universe, standing, like the great angel of the Apocalypse, clothed with a cloud, and with a rainbow upon his head, and with the sun and stars given into his hand'. That is the essence of Ruskin's unique brand of aesthetic evangelism. …

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