Tuesday, December 02, 2008

John Ruskin and the peacock

click photo to enlarge
"Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless; peacocks and lilies for instance."
John Ruskin (1819-1900) English art critic, social critic, artist, etc,
from "The Stones of Venice" (1851)

Many years ago I read "The Stones of Venice" and "The Seven Lamps of Architecture" one after the other and ended up with "Ruskindigestion"! Both books are fascinating and important documents in the history of art and architecture, but as you read them you feel that you are being so stuffed full of the author's "moral truths" that you'll burst.

John Ruskin was a man of decided opinions about painting (direct observation was vital), architecture (Classical bad, Gothic - especially the Venetian variety - good), society (he extolled the virtues of the medieval period and decried the values of the industrial revolution), and much else too. I took away from the books much interesting information about art and architecture, but also amazement that a man could be so utterly convinced of his own rightness. Not a single doubt seemed to exist in Ruskin's head. Every opinion was held with absolute conviction.

I suppose that comes through in the quotation at the head of this piece. It's an absurd statement, ridiculously dogmatic, and easily disproved. Yet, I was delighted to read it! Because what made Ruskin great, for me, were his powerful insights that he couldn't have had without being so strongly convinced of his own point of view. For every statement that we can disagree with - "I do not believe that ever any building was truly great, unless it had mighty masses, vigorous and deep, of shadow mingled with its surface" is another such - there is also an abundance that are felicitously expressed and contain deep truths. So, when I read, "Fine art is that in which the hand, the head and the heart of man go together" I can only agree. As an educator I was impressed by his statement about education: "The entire object of true education is to make people not merely do the right things, but enjoy them; not merely be industrious, but love industry; not merely learn, but love knowledge; not merely be pure, but love purity; not merely be just, but hunger and thirst after justice". And when I came across, "Quality is never an accident, it is always the result of intelligent effort", I could only say "Amen!" Ruskin is still worth reading today. If you haven't the time or inclination for a book (or two) look up some of his quotations: they are frequently perceptive, often opinionated, and sometimes plain wrong! But they're always interesting.

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 35mm macro (70mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f5.6
Shutter Speed: 1/2
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation: 0 EV
Image Stabilisation: Off