In the long run, genius can be its own worst enemy. The more difficulty there is getting a handle on a body of work — it’s so varied, demanding, distinctive, provocative, and, yes, uneven — the easier it is to turn to something less daunting. Distance in time compounds the difficulty. Both of those conditions, genius and distance, apply to the writings of John Ruskin. The adjectives apply, too.
This is Ruskin’s bicentenary. A comprehensive website, www.ruskin200.com, has information on the many observances. Most are in England. Ruskin’s blend of gadabout unclassifiability, ferocious productivity, and bewhiskered fervor is unthinkable outside of Victorian England. Two exceptions are “Victorian Visionary: John Ruskin and the Realization of the Ideal,” at Harvard’s Houghton Library through April 13, and the Yale Center for British Art’s forthcoming “ ‘Unto this Last’: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin,” Sept. 5-Dec. 8.
Ruskin’s collected works take up 39 volumes, 39 thick volumes. A few of the titles retain a distant, once-in-the-syllabus familiarity: “Modern Painters,” “The Stones of Venice” (Ruskin is to Venice, “the Paradise of cities,” he called it, as L. Frank Baum is to Oz), “The Seven Lamps of Architecture,” “Praeterita” (his autobiography — “the only one of Ruskin’s writings intended to give pleasure,” Kenneth Clark said). There’s even a children’s book, “The King of the Golden River,” the most popular of all his works. Presumably, he did intend that one to give pleasure. Thames & Hudson publishes a new edition next month, with illustrations by Quentin Blake.
Like his friend Thomas Carlyle and T.H. Huxley, Ruskin was a kind of warrior seer. He most naturally wrote in the key of castigation. His social activism is the chief focus of the Harvard show. There are numerous items of biographical interest: a canceled check, letters, a copy of Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” inscribed by the poet to Ruskin, a fine Alpine watercolor (Ruskin was himself a gifted artist). There’s an even greater emphasis on his championing of workingmen’s education, conservation, social equality, historic preservation. His advocacy of preservation helped inspire the style known as Ruskinian Gothic, of which Harvard’s Memorial Hall is a prime example. On March 29, the library hosts a colloquium, Green Sage: John Ruskin as Proto-Environmentalist.
Both Tolstoy and Gandhi cited Ruskin as an influence. That that influence endures is suggested by the oddest item in the show, a 2012 English comic book, “How to Be Rich,” based on Ruskin’s book “Unto This Last.”
His influence on art and art criticism is at once clearer (Ruskin promoting the Pre-Raphaelites, for example) and more complicated. No one writes like him — not that anyone ever has. One of the reasons Ruskin remains unsurpassed as a writer on art is that the same quality of unswerving engagement he brought to railing against economic inequality carried over to scorning Poussin and championing J.M.W. Turner (truly, there was no god but Turner, and, no less truly, Ruskin was his prophet). The strenuous and extensive nature of that writing — there are five volumes to “Modern Painters,” all of them thick — means he is almost entirely unread now. In a sense, he doesn’t need to be, elements of his sensibility inform so many subsequent art critics. You can discern Ruskin in Robert Hughes (the dynamism), John Berger (the moral force), Arthur Danto (the learnedness), T.J. Clark (the vehemence), even Clement Greenberg (the dogmatism).
Dave Hickey, who is to Ruskin as a surfboard is to a pulpit, does not belong on that list. This makes his appreciation all the more striking. “Ruskin really cared, and he really looked,” Hickey has written. “No one, before or since, has taken visual art more seriously or written about it with more passion or eloquence.” (An attentive reader will not have missed that all of those critics are male. It’s worth noting that women’s education was prominent among the many causes Ruskin devoted himself to.)
The words that Ruskin would have prized are “really looked.” In the third volume of “Modern Painters,” he said that “the greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and to tell what it saw in a plain way.” From any other writer, “plain” would clearly be meant ironically, but irony was not a color on Ruskin’s palette. Still, the point is made, and consistent with his citing “the habit of fixed attention with both my eyes and mind” as “the main practical faculty of my life.” The single most important item in the Harvard show is Ruskin’s pocket magnifying glass.
The product of the close looking — at art, at architecture, at society — was a kind of intensity rarely found in coherent, or even incoherent, English prose. Ruskin once described “the right wit of conversation” as “not hyperbole, not violence, not frivolity, only well expressed, laconic truth.” “Laconic” is what makes the summation, of course, not that that word ever applies to how he went about his business. Ruskin’s writing is about as laconic as cataracts and hurricanoes are. To read him is to stand bare-headed with Lear on the heath. But even those few words about “right wit” convey the marvel that is the prose — and why a reader might not mind enduring such wind and rain.
“I would write a short, pithy, laconic, sensible, concentrated and serious letter if I could,” Ruskin once told his father. Instead, “I roll on like a ball, with this exception, that contrary to the usual laws of motion I have no friction to contend with in my mind and of course have some difficulty in stopping.” Which is more remarkable: that “of course” or his being 13 at the time he wrote those words?
Words, words, words: Simon Schama, the Columbia historian, once suggested that “John Ruskin invented his own language or at least his own self-devouring syntax, the prose (if that is what it is) hurtling, adamant and operatic.” It’s a description worthy of Ruskin himself. Marcel Proust seized upon his singularity, too. Proust translated Ruskin’s “The Bible of Amiens” and “Sesame and Lilies” (the Harvard show includes a copy of the latter). “I don’t claim to know English,” he said; “I claim to know Ruskin.”
Consider the following sentence — indelible, overwhelming, slightly crazed — yet this isn’t overwriting. Ruskin pulls it off, through sheer dynamism, aided by close observation: “The whole sky from the zenith to the horizon becomes one molten, mantling sea of color and fire; every black bar turns into massy gold, every ripple and wave into unsullied shadowless crimson, and purple, and scarlet, and colors for which there are no words in language, and no ideas in the mind, — things which can only be conceived while they are visible, — the intense hollow blue of the upper sky melting through it all, — showing here deep, and pure, and lightless; there, modulated by the filmy formless body of the transparent vapor, till it is lost imperceptibly in its crimson and gold.”
Then comes the payoff: “Now there is no connection, no one link of association or resemblance, between those skies and the work of any mortal hand but Turner’s.”
Is this art criticism? Theology? Color theory? Meteorology? Madness? It’s something of each — and genius entirely.
The impact of passion at such a pitch of expression — at such a level of eloquence — can hardly be exaggerated. It may be that it cannot even be described. One is reduced to reading Ruskin to have some sense of what the experience of reading Ruskin is like. That verges on tautology. Ruskin was fond of tautologies, except that he didn’t consider them that. He saw them as axioms, only more creatively expressed.
Axioms, axioms, axioms: “Taste is not only a part and an index of morality — it is the only morality,” he declared in an 1866 lecture. Ruskin never “said.” He always “declared” or “asserted” or “pronounced.” Even using the passive voice he was active. “The first, and last, and closest trial question to any living creature is, ‘What do you like?’ Tell me what you like, and I’ll tell you what you are. Go out into the street, and ask the first man or woman you meet, what their ‘taste’ is, and if they answer candidly, you know them, body and soul.”
That view places a burden on aesthetic judgment that is surely insupportable, other than when supplemented by — or as outright substitute for — religion. Ruskin actually has this subchapter heading in the first volume of “Modern Painters”: “The duty of the painter is the same as that of the preacher.” He at once raises up painting to an insupportable degree (it’s the pursuit of religion, or at least morality, by other means) and reduces it to an agenda of formulae and precepts. Ruskin is aestheticism by way of the Old Testament: Yahweh roaming a picture gallery. He was a sublime (if also slightly frightening) adult version of the little boy who every morning read the Bible with his mother and memorized much of it. In “Praeterita,” he describes “my mother having it deeply in her heart to make an evangelical clergyman of me.” In a very real sense, she got her wish.
Neither ineffability nor delight quite fits in Ruskin’s understanding of art. He’s extremely intelligent. He’s highly passionate. He’s an unrivaled rhetorician. But his capacity for narrowness and wrong-headedness is no less remarkable.
The classic instance of this is Ruskin’s describing J.A.M. Whistler as “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Such philistinism, as we would now understand it, is doubly shocking: both for what it says (admittedly, with superb and characteristic pungency) and for the fact that Whistler could not have painted as he did without the example of Turner, that master of representation taken to the verge of abstraction. In deriding Whistler a quarter century after Turner’s death, Ruskin may have felt he was protecting Turner’s reputation. Instead, his fury was a betrayal of Turner’s legacy.
Though it would have horrified Ruskin to think so, art for art sake is the logical, perhaps inevitable, outcome of his aesthetic views. Exalting art as he did, he essentially made a religion of it for those without actual religion. In that sense, he was less social and aesthetic prophet for his own time than cultural prophet for ours. What is most modern about Ruskin is how he ultimately sees Art (yes, capital a) as being not so much about pleasure, or even edification, as redemption. Ruskin once wrote of “a blue, deep, desolate hollow of darkness, out of which you can hear the voice of the night wind and the dull boom of the disturbed sea.” He was describing one of Turner’s most celebrated paintings, “The Fighting Termeraire.” The words might also be understood to describe that now-empty space where art attempts to supply something that passes for belief. Listen closely, very closely, and the words you hear whispered beneath that dull boom belong to Ruskin. Unlike the boom, they are anything but dull.
VICTORIAN VISIONARY: John Ruskin and the Realization of the Ideal
At Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, extended through April 13. 617-495-2441. library.harvard.edu/events/victorian-visionaryMark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.