Friday, March 21, 2014

The Stones of Chamonix

John Ruskin, View from my Window at Mornex, c. 1862-1863
Images from Wikimedia Commons

If you're in Edinburgh this summer you'll be able to see the National Gallery of Scotland's exhibition John Ruskin: Artist and Observer, an in depth look at his often-underrated paintings and drawings.  Gary Wills, writing in the New York Review of Books, puts their relative neglect down to the fact that Ruskin 'rarely completed pictures of a conventional sort', focusing instead on details and fragment, painting the landscape as he saw it rather than conjuring up sublime scenes or sentimental vignettes.  Wills regrets that the exhibition does not do more to acknowledge Ruskin's political interests: 'there are many drawings of Gothic architecture in the show—yet no mention of his connection between Gothic and workmen. There are obsessive tracings of sky and clouds—yet his ecological concerns for a coal-darkened England are nowhere mentioned.'  Instead, Ruskin's mental health and famously anguished attitude to women are foregrounded.  'His sexual repression is expressed, we are told, in compensatory fixations on mountain clefts and caverns as vaginas. Well, sure enough, there are some split rocks here—how could Ruskin have drawn hundreds of mountain scenes and avoided them?'

John Ruskin, Rocks and Vegetation, Chamonix, c. 1854
John Ruskin, The Casa d'Oro Venice, 1845
Looking to see what other reviewers in Canada made of it, I came upon the Ottawa Magazine, whose 'Artful Blogger' finds Ruskin's private life far more intriguing than his art and concludes with a reference to his 'steamy landscapes' in which there is a hidden sexual element.  Much more useful is a review on The Victorian Web, that venerable website which is clearly still putting up valuable and interesting material.  And the short video tour with curator Christopher Newall that I've embedded below is well worth a watch.  In it he describes Ruskin's fascination with the individuality and craftsmanship of the Byzantine capitals used in building St Mark's, and horror at plans to reconstruct the facade of the basilica, which were fortunately thwarted.  He talks about Ruskin's intricate sketch of glacial rocks in Scotland and his passion for stones in both architecture and landscape (Ruskin said that had he not discovered the art of Tintoretto, he would have written a book called The Stones of Chamonix).  He also refers to Ruskin's bipolarity, but in a way that illuminates the painting - a vivid sketch of winter sunset on the Venetian lagoon conveys the delight Ruskin clearly felt at the time, but writing later in his diary, Ruskin regretted that he had felt the beauty of the place so intensely that he was now 'suffering the consequences'.


Mike C. said...

Yes, Ruskin has been incredibly underrated, and I do wonder whether the sniggering over his unconsummated marriage, etc., has a lot to do with it.

It's always a Ruskin study that stops me in my tracks as I flip through a book on 19th c. art, or walk through a gallery. Compared to his Pre-Raphaelite contemporaries, his eyes are wide open to the world in ways that theirs are not.

Yet another reason to get to Edinburgh this summer...


Plinius said...


Also coming soon, Emma Thompson's new film 'Effie' which, according to the Guardian yesterday, almost came 'to grief as ignominiously as Ruskin's marriage' with lawsuits and accusations of plagiarism.