Decorative Initial Although Ruskin uses his loving observations of nature to teach us about the edxternal world, far more characteristic of Ruskin's methods, however, are those passages which not only inform us about visual fact but which place us in a position to confront it imaginatively. Ruskin's word painting, his primary educative and satirical technique in the early works, takes three forms, each more complex and more powerful than the last. First of all he employs what we may term an additive style, in which he describes a series of visual details one after another; see, for example, 3.565. Second, he creates a dramatized scene which he sets before us, focusing our attention on a single element which moves through the space he has conjured up with language. For example, when writing about rain clouds, Ruskin explains how they first form and then move in relation to the earth below, after which, like the evangelical preacher and the romantic poet, he cites his own experience:

I remember once, when in crossing the Tête Noire, I had turned up the valley towards Trient, I noticed a rain-cloud forming on the Glacier de Trient. With a west wind, It proceeded towards the Col de Balme, being followed by a prolonged wreath of vapour, always forming exactly at the same spot over the glacier. This long, serpent-like line of cloud went on at a great rate till it reached the valley leading down from the Col de Balme, under the slate rocks of the Croix de Fer. There It turned sharp round, and came down this valley, at right angles to its former progress, and finally directly contrary to it, till it came down within five hundred feet of the village, where it disappeared, the line behind always advancing, and always disappearing, at the same spot. This continued for a an hour, the long line describing the curve of a horse-shoe; always coming into existence and always vanishing at exactly the same places, traversing the space between with enormous swiftness. This cloud, ten miles off, would have looked like a perfectly motionless wreath, in the form of a horse-shoe, hanging over the hills. [3.395]

Ruskin thus sets us before his Alpine scene, permitting us to observe the movement of a single element within it. After he has concluded his examination of the moving cloud, he moves us farther away, and tells us what it would look like — how we would experience it — from a different point of view.

In such a passage of description, Ruskin proceeds by placing us before a scene, making us spectators of an event. In his third and most elaborate form of word painting, in contrast, he sets us within the scene and makes [138/ 139] us participants. He here fulfills his own descriptions of imaginative art. Several places in Modern Painters explain that both the novice and the painter without imagination must content themselves with a topographical art of visual fact. "The aim of the great inventive landscape painter," on the other hand, "must be to give the far higher and deeper truth of mental vision, rather than that of the physical facts, and to reach a representation which . . . shall yet be capable of producing on the faraway beholder's mind precisely the impression which the reality would have produced" (6.35). As he himself explains, in this higher form of art "the artist not only places the spectator, but . . . makes him a sharer in his own strong feelings and quick thoughts" (3.134). The great imaginative artist, in other words, grants us the privilege of momentarily seeing with his eyes and imaginative vision: we experience his phenomenological relation to the world. Ruskin achieves this goal in language by employing what we may anachronistically term a cinematic prose; that is, he first places himself and his reader firmly in position, after which he generates a complete landscape by moving this center of perception, or seeing eye, in one of two ways. He may move us progressively deeper into the landscape in a manner that anticipates cinematic use of the zoom lens, or he may move us laterally while remaining at a fixed distance from the subject — a technique which similarly anticipates cinematic panning. By thus first positioning his center of observation and then directing its attention with patterned movement Ruskin manages to do what is almost impossible — create a coherent visual space with language. Such a procedure, which he employs both when describing works of art and the nature they depict, appears, for instance, in his brilliant description of La Riccia in the first volume of Modern Painters and in many crucial passages in The Stones of Venice, including his magnificent tour of Saint Marks, his narration of the approach to Torcello and tour of it, and his aerial view of the Mediterranean Sea.

Such beautiful passages of language are not mere embellishments of his main argument, nor are they self-indulgent displays of virtuosity. They are not even tactics which he employs to smooth over the rough spots in his argument. Such writing in fact is central to Ruskin's conception of himself as critic. First of all, these descriptions are basic to his conception of himself as one who teaches others to see, since he relies upon such cinematic prose to educate his audience's vision, teaching its members to note shapes, tone, colors, and visible fact they have often confronted but [139/140] failed to observe. Second, such writing again serves to establish what the older rhetoricians termed the speaker's ethos. The main problem for the Victorian sage is to convince others that he is worthwhile listening to that he is a man whose arguments however strange they may at first appear are the products of a sincere, honest, and above all, reliable mind. Thus, one of the first tasks of any speaker or writer is to establish himself before his audience as a believable, even authoritative voice, and this Ruskin easily accomplishes by demonstrating that he has seen and seen more than the critics who oppose him. His critics are blind, and he has vision. These passages of highly wrought prose, one must further emphasize, always take their place as part of a larger structure of argument. They serve, in fact, as a major part of Ruskin's complex rhythm of satire and romantic vision, something made abundantly clear in his discussion of Claude's Il Mulino, which begins with a description of the painting so beloved of critics hostile to Turner:

The foreground is a piece of very lovely and perfect forest scenery, with a dance of peasants by a brook-side; quite enough subject to form, in the hands of a master, an impressive and complete picture. On the other side of the brook however, we have a piece of pastoral life; a man with some bulls and goats tumbling headforemost into the water, owing to some sudden paralytic affection of all their legs.... When we look farther into the picture, our feelings receive a sudden and violent shock, by the unexpected appearance, amidst things pastoral and musical, of the military; a number of Roman soldiers riding in on hobbyhorses, with a leader on foot, apparently encouraging them to make an immediate and decisive charge on the musicians. Beyond the soldiers is a circular temple, in exceedingly bad repair; and close beside it, built against its very walls, a neat water-mill in full work. By the mill flows a large river with a weir all across it The weir has not been made for the mill (for that receives its water from the hills by a trough carried over the temple), but it is particularly ugly and monotonous m its line of fall, and the water below forms a dead-looking pond, on which some people are fishing m punts. The banks of this river resemble in contour the later geological formations around London, constituted chiefly of broken pots and oyster-shells. At an inconvenient distance from the water-side stands a city composed of twenty-five round towers and a pyramid. Beyond the city is a handsome bridge; beyond the bridge, part of the Campagna, . . . [and] the chain of the Alps; on the left, the cascades of Tivoli. [3.41-41]

Ruskin presents the painting by Claude as a three-dimensional, rationally organized space, first sketching in the foreground and then moving deeper into the imaginative world of the canvas. Again, he characteristically sets the observing eye with care and then proceeds to move it deeper into the picture space. His earnest tone gradually reduces the painting to [140/141] mockery, for at each pause he lets us observe a detail which reveals severe lack of either observation or coherent, imaginative organization. First of all, we perceive (through Ruskin's eyes) the primary motif of the peasant dance, after which we come upon an unnecessary bit of pastoral, which, we are led to believe, has been painted with such lack of vitality that the animals have sudden paralytic afflictions. Then we perceive the soldiers, and looking beyond them, we encounter the irrationally and unimaginatively organized cityscape. Ruskin turns his attacking criticism up another notch, employing satiric analogies — the riverbanks look like garbage dumps along the Thames — and a bald, flat tone reduces the city to absurdity, a mere construction of child's blocks. He concludes his satiric foray through the picture by directing our attention at the distant landscape it contains.

At this point, he turns away from the Claude to address his audience, employing one of the most powerful weapons in the arsenal of the Victo- rian sage — redefinition. Having conducted his tour through the canvas, discovering its flaws, he now draws a first conclusion: "This is, I believe, a fair example of what is commonly called an 'ideal' landscape; i.e., a group of the artist's studies from Nature, individually spoiled, selected with such opposition of character as may insure their neutralizing each other's effect, and united with sufficient unnaturalness and violence of association to insure their producing a general sensation of the impossible" (3.42). This satiric redefinition strikes to the heart of the neoclassical style, destroying its claims to be a higher or imaginative form of art. Had Ruskin begun in such a blunt manner, he would have lost our sympathy, for taken in isolation such a description of the ideal strikes one as little more than invective. But when we come upon this polemical definition after making our tour through the painting, we are at least willing to admit that it applies to our recent experience.

His satiric description and redefinition merely serves as Ruskin's opening salvo, for he now turns to the details of the work in question. Since he is trying to make us feel that the high art of the connoisseurs and periodical critics is as unimaginative as it is untruthful, he next examines a potentially sublime element in the picture. Asserting that "perhaps there is no more impressive scene on earth than the solitary extent of the Campagna of Rome under evening light," Ruskin sets the reader within the sublime landscape of this Italian wasteland: [141/142]

Let the reader imagine himself for a moment withdrawn from the sounds and motion of the living world, and sent forth alone into this wold and wasted plain. The earth yields and crumbles beneath his foot, tread he never so lightly, for its substance is white, hollow, and carious, like the dusty wreck of the bones of men. The long knotted grass waves and tosses feebly in the evening wind, and the shadows of its motion shake feverishly along the banks of ruin that lift themselves to the sunlight. Hillocks of mouldering earth heave around him, as if the dead beneath were struggling in their sleep; scattered blocks of black stone four-square, remnants of mighty edifices, not one left upon another, lie upon them to keep them down. A dull purple poisonous haze stretches level along the desert veiling its spectral wrecks of massy ruins, on whose rents the red light rests, like a dying fire on defiled altars. The blue ridge of the Alban Mount lifts itself against a solemn space of green, clear, quiet sky. Watch-towers of dark clouds stand steadfastly along the promontories of the Apennines. From the plain to the mountains the shattered aqueducts, pier beyond pier, melt into the darkness, like shadowy and countless troops of funeral mourners, passing from a nation's grave. [3.42-43]

Ruskin readies us for our excursion into this gothic wasteland by reminding us that he is going to withdraw us from the "sounds and motion" of the living world, immersing us in a world of the Burkean sublime, the sublime of deprivation and darkness. We then become aware of the sight and feel of the white pumice that we find ourselves standing upon, after which Ruskin directs us to look up — and we perceive feebly moving grass and ruins upon which the light strikes. Next, we turn about and encounter the more distant hillocks upon which lie the stones of more ruins. Looking through the purple haze that stretches across the desert, we see, first, the blue ridge of the Alban Mount and, next, the line of crumbling aqueducts which lead our eyes into darkness. Ruskin here draws upon his characteristic technique of word painting to place us within a landscape of death, a landscape which embodies the passing of Rome, and as such it doubly comments upon the Claudean ideal: for this verbal landscape not only reveals what Claude has omitted from his painting, but it also suggests that the Roman source of that ideal is ir- recoverably dead and gone. We find ourselves in a vast gothic graveyard, and however much the description may owe to both Mrs. Radcliffe and Burke, Ruskin has made it comment upon an entire civilization and an entire art.

Having thus offered his own experience of the Campagna to his reader, the author of Modern Painters then follows it with a satiric recipe for producing the Claudean ideal. "Let us, with Claude," Ruskin tells the reader, "make a few 'ideal' alterations in this landscape. First, we will reduce the multidinous precipices of the Apennines to four sugar-loaves. [142/143] Secondly, we will remove the Alban Mount, and put a large dust-heap in its stead. Next we will knock down the greater part of the aqueducts, and leave only an arch or two, that their infinity of length may no longer be painful from its monotony.... Finally, we will get rid of the unpleasant ruins in the foreground" (3.43). By this point, it should be obvious that Ruskin has successfully made his primary point — namely, that the neo- classical ideal in landscape is both less truthful and less imaginative than that of Turner and the moderns. Ruskin convinces us of his position by means of a superbly controlled alternation of vision and satire, preparing us for his polemic at each step of the way by allowing us to borrow his eyes and see. His skill at presenting us with his experience of landscape and landscape art continually makes us feel that his critical opponents and the painters he attacks both work from theory, from recipes, rather than from vision. Modern Painters, The Stones of Venice, Praeterita, and many of Ruskin's other works progress by means of a series of such passages of visual and visionary experience. Careless readers have occasionally accused him of lack of organization, but in fact he, like Tennyson, develops a literary structure that can accommodate and build upon such intense moments of perception.


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Last modified 8 December 2006