lthough "Fairy Land" concerns itself largely with art and literature for children, Ruskin's remarks decades before in Modern Painters make it abundantly clear that he conceives the fantastic imagination as one of the defining characteristics of humanity and its highest art. According to him, whereas the student artist and those of lesser imagination must concentrate upon topographical, realistic studies which store the mind with visual fact, the great artist, such as Turner, creates imaginative transformations of reality which most of his audience will receive as fantastic distortions — thus the need for criticism and for Ruskin to have begun Modern Painters in order to demonstrate to hostile critics that Turner's later visions of mist and fire were firmly based on reality. By creating such unusual and unexpected images of the world of matter and spirit, the great artist produces a work which enables us to perceive with his eyes and imagination. Each artist necessarily transforms the world according to the strengths and limitations of his own character, imagination, and age, and in the third volume of Modern Painters (1856) Ruskin endeavors to explain the various imaginative modes in which artists work. Purist art, for example, arises in the "unwillingness ... to contemplate the various forms of definite evil which necessarily occur in ... the world" (5.103-04). Artists, like Fra Angelico, "create for themselves an imaginary state, in which pain and imperfection either do not exist, or exist in some edgeless and enfeebled condition" (5.104). Turning to a lesser English example, he describes Thomas Stothard in terms strikingly like those with which he was later to describe Kate Greenaway:
It seems as if Stothard could not conceive wickedness, coarseness, baseness; every one of his figures looks as if it had been copied from some creature who had never harboured an unkind thought, or permitted itself an ignoble action. With this intense love of mental purity is joined, in Stothard, a love of mere physical smoothness and softness, so that he lived in a universe of soft grass and stainless fountains, tender trees, and stones at which no foot could stumble. (5.105)
Although such art can provide some brief respite from the pains of this life, it is, finds Ruskin, essentially childish and incomplete.
A potentially higher art appears in the grotesque, which takes three forms. The central mode of the grotesque arises from the fact that the human imagination "in its mocking or playful moods ... is apt to jest, sometimes bitterly, with under-current of sternest pathos, sometimes waywardly, sometimes slightly and wickedly, with death and sin; hence an enormous mass of grotesque art, some most noble and useful, as Holbein's Dance of Death, and Albrecht Durer's Knight, Death and the Devil, going down gradually through various conditions of less and less seriousness into an art whose only end is that of mere excitement, or to amuse by terror" (5.131). In addition to this darker form of the grotesque, which includes work ranging from traditional religious images of death and the devil to satire and horrorific art, there is a comparitively rare form which arises "from an entirely healthy and open play of the imagination, as in Shakespeare's Ariel and Titania, and in Scott's White Lady" (5.131). This delicate fairy art is so seldom achieved because "the moment we begin to contemplate sinless beauty we are apt to get serious; and moral fairy tales, and such other innocent work, are hardly ever truly, that is to say, naturally imaginative; but for the most part laborious inductions and compositions. The moment any real vitality enters them, they are nearly sure to become satirical, or slightly gloomy, and so connect themselves with the evil-enjoying branch" (5.131-32).
The third form of the grotesque, which served as the basis for Ruskin's conception of a high art suited to the Victorian age, is the "thoroughly noble one ... which arises out of the use or fancy of tangible signs to set forth an otherwise less expressible truth; including nearly the whole range of symbolical and allegorical art and poetry" (5.132). Ruskin's valuable perception that fantastic art and literature form part of a continuum which includes sublime, symbolic, grotesque, and satirical works is particularly useful to anyone interested in this mode, because fantastic art does, in fact, share much with satire and symbol, caricature and sublime. After all, much of the delight of Caldecott's courting frog, Griset's fisherman, and Rackham's witches arises in the way they caricature normal humanity, and similarly, when we receive pleasure from this last artist's wonderfully humanized trees, it is precisely because they are so human; because, in other words, they share so much of the human that they enable us to see ourselves better because we see ourselves in such guise.
Landow, George P. "And the World Became Strange: Realms of Literary Fantasy" The Georgia Review, 33, Number 1 (Spring 1979)" 15-16.
Last modified 1994