NEW HAVEN — If Walt Whitman, whose bicentenary all New York has been celebrating, can come across as absolutely contemporary — a big-bearded hipster tipping back Pabst Blue Ribbons and spouting poetry in some Brooklyn dive bar — John Ruskin, also 200 this year, seems stubbornly and remotely Victorian. The Yale Center for British Art’s Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin aims to assert Ruskin’s contemporary relevance while firmly retaining his 19th-century context. For the most part, the curators of this compact but extraordinarily rich exhibition succeed admirably.
When Ruskin died in 1900, he had been more or less silent for a over a decade, his final twilight after a series of mental breakdowns and recoveries. The long-bearded valentudinarian, rarely venturing out of his house (“Brantwood”) on Coniston Water, was a far cry from the slim and dashing art critic, arbiter of taste, and Oxford Slade Professor of Art, whose voice had come to dominate how Britons thought about art and architecture in the second half of the 19th century.
Ruskin sprang onto the public stage in 1843 with the first volume of Modern Painters, a fiery defense of J.M.W. Turner’s late work. He followed that with a string of books distinguished by their intoxicating prose style: The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), The Stones of Venice (1851-53), and four more volumes of Modern Painters (1846-60). From his first appearance in print Ruskin was rarely out of the public eye, and at the height of his reputation he could make or break any artist’s prospects. The humor magazine Punch printed a bit of lamenting verse in 1856, supposedly by a working artist: “I takes and paints, / Hears no complaints, / And sells before I’m dry; / Till savage Ruskin / sticks his tusk in. / And nobody will buy.”
Ruskin was much more than an art critic and theorist, however, and this exhibition gives at least a taste of the various sides of this astonishingly polygonal figure. Ruskin was a fine draughtsman, of both architecture and nature, and a number of his drawings and watercolors are displayed. Of course, any piece of visual art is bound to be overshadowed by Turner’s “Venice, from the Porch of Madonna della Salute” (ca. 1835), on loan from the Metropolitan Museum, but to compare Ruskin’s sketches to the Turner canvas is a category error: Ruskin rarely aimed to create finished, complete artworks; for him, drawing was a way to discipline the eye, to truly see the complex and subtle harmonies of natural shapes and forms. It was also a way to record that which might otherwise might be lost, as in his painstaking drawings of Venetian architectural details, many of them from buildings scheduled for demolition or “restoration” (which, for Ruskin, was the equivalent of destruction, the wholesale erasure of the historical record).
Ruskin, however, was captivated with more than just architecture. He wrote at some length — sometimes whole books — on geology, mythology, crystallography, ornithology, herpetology, and who knows what else. (Yale has a fascinating arrangement of specimens from his mineral collection, another of his obsessions.) In some ways, Ruskin’s most influential works dealt with neither art nor nature, but with what the Victorians called “political economy”: the dismal science of economics. In a string of writings that begins with the chapter “The Nature of Gothic” (The Stones of Venice, volume 1) and includes Unto This Last (1862) and the proto-blog pamphlet series Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain (1871-78, 1880-84), Ruskin forcefully, sometimes stridently, reiterates his conviction that industrial capitalism and commercialism were crushing the humanity out of whole classes of the populace, and were reducing human laborers to mere machines.
Many of his readers were incredulous and offended at the art critic and “word-painter”’s refusal to stay in his lane. (One reviewer of Unto This Last declined to be “preached to death by a mad governess.”) But Ruskin’s social propaganda had a deep and lasting effect, and grew more resonant through the end of the century even as the man himself fell silent. William Morris’s Arts & Crafts movement and Guild Socialism adopted Ruskin as a primary influence. When asked what books formed their progressive opinions, the first crop of Labour Party MPs, elected in 1906, overwhelmingly named Unto This Last. And on the very fringes of the Empire, Mahatma Gandhi in 1904 discovered the seeds for his campaign of self-reliance and resistance in that same book. Many elements of the postwar welfare state — universal education, a minimum wage, green spaces in cities — found their earliest champion in Ruskin.
The Yale exhibition ably illustrates Ruskin’s influence, displaying a copy of Morris’s Kelmscott Press edition of The Nature of Gothic, Proust’s French translation of Sesame and Lilies, an English translation of Gandhi’s Gujarati adaptation of Unto This Last, and a selection of materials relating to the Guild of St. George, the organization Ruskin founded in 1871 to reclaim unused agricultural land, establish agrarian communities, and provide cultural resources for working people. The St. George’s Museum Ruskin, established at Walkley, Sheffield, is a kind of crowded chamber of wonders. A contemporary photograph shows landscapes, drawings and dagguereotypes, architectural casts, and pottery. It resembles the Yale exhibition itself, whose curators try, mostly successfully, to cram the achievements of one of art history’s most fascinating and polymathic figures into four modest rooms.
Ruskin bicentenary exhibitions (Yale’s is only one of several taking place around the world) give visitors lots to look at, but their ultimate goal is to get people to read Ruskin. Ruskin newbies probably won’t want to tackle the vast expanse of the magnificent Library Edition (1903-12) of his works (accessible online from the Ruskin Collection at Lancaster University), but excellent paperback selections are available from both Penguin and Oxford University Press.
For a breezy, comprehensive, and highly readable introduction to Ruskin as man and thinker, one can’t do much better than Michael Glover’s John Ruskin: An Idiosyncratic Dictionary. Glover’s book is organized alphabetically rather than strictly chronologically, but the entries are so calculated that readers unfamiliar with Ruskin are eased gently into the epic of this quirky, brilliant, sometimes irascible, and utterly fascinating figure’s life. We learn about in passing about his cloistered but privileged childhood, the utter failure of his marriage (sex, it seems, was the one thing about which Ruskin knew absolutely nothing), his championing of the Pre-Raphaelites, his later contretemps with Whistler, and his teaching career at Oxford — where he enlisted his soft-handed undergraduates to help rebuild a dilapidated country road.
In more detail, and supported by carefully chosen passages from Ruskin’s own writing, Glover explores the man’s aesthetics, his ideas about architecture, and his paradoxical political and social ideas: Ruskin hated what industrial capitalism had made of England, but he was no fan of democracy and egalitarianism either; the ultimate, utopian cure for mankind’s woes, as exemplified in his Guild of St. George writings, would be a return to a hierarchical, agrarian society.
One aspect of Ruskin that Glover touches upon only very briefly, but that receives much emphasis in the Yale exhibition, is his ecological thought. Ruskin’s lecture series The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century (1884) proclaimed that the darkening skies over England — almost certainly the partial result of industrial pollution — showed that human behavior had the capacity to alter for the worse the planet’s very environment. Now deep into an era of human-generated global warming, we can look back to Ruskin as one of the earliest prophets of a malign Anthropocene.
Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin continues at The Yale Center for British Art (1080 Chapel St., New Haven, Connecticut) through December 8.
John Ruskin: An Idiosyncratic Dictionary, Encompassing his Passions, his Delusions and his Prophecies, compiled by Michael Glover (2019), is published by Lund Humphries and is available from Amazon or your local independent bookstore.