Tuesday, November 12, 2013

all kinds of strange and startling expressions: more Ruskin on architecture

...it is at least interesting, if not profitable, to note that two very distinguishing characters of vital imitation are, its Frankness and its Audacity; its Frankness is especially singular; there is never any effort to conceal the degree of the sources of its borrowing. Raffaelle carries off a whole figure from Masaccio, or borrows an entire composition from Perugino, with as much tranquillity and simplicity of innocence as a young Spartan pickpocket; and the architect of a Romanesque basilica gathered his columns and capitals where he could find them, as an ant picks up sticks. There is at least a presumption, when we find this frank acceptance, that there is a sense within the mind of power capable of transforming and renewing whatever it adopts; and too conscious, too exalted, to fear the accusation of plagiarism,--too certain that it can prove, and has proved, its independence, to be afraid of expressing its homage to what it admires in the most open and indubitable way; and the necessary consequence of this sense of power is the other sign I have named--the Audacity of treatment when it finds treatment necessary, the unhesitating and sweeping sacrifice of precedent where precedent becomes inconvenient.

Ruskin, from Chapter V of The Seven Lamps of Architecture. Chapter V is titled "The Lamp of Life," and concerns the manner in which an artist, when exploring the possibilities of his materials and his design, is free to improvise and to ignore ideas of perfection, to mold and shape his artwork by feel, as it were, to create beauty that is not bounded by ideas of mathematical perfection. This is, so far, the greatest chapter in Seven Lamps, and I am tempted to quote the entirety of it, but I won't. The book is available, even on the internets for free, and you should go read Chapter V yourself. The unrestrained joy with which Ruskin describes the glorious imperfectness of St Mark's in Venice frankly took my breath away. I read this chapter in one sitting, glued to the page as it were.

Ruskin, in the chapter, is talking about "the Vitality of Assimilation, the faculty which turns to its purposes all material that is submitted to it," or in other words, the life of the artwork, the way in which the artist rises above ideas of mere craft, and is guided by imagination, vision, a drive to bring energy to the work:

a well intended and vivid impression [...] is oftener got by rough than fine handling. I am not sure whether it is frequently enough observed that sculpture is not the mere cutting of the _form_ of anything in stone; it is the cutting of the _effect_ of it. Very often the true form, in the marble, would not be in the least like itself. The sculptor must paint with his chisel: half his touches are not to realize, but to put power into the form: they are touches of light and shadow; and raise a ridge, or sink a hollow, not to represent an actual ridge or hollow, but to get a line of light, or a spot of darkness. In a coarse way, this kind of execution is very marked in old French woodwork; the irises of the eyes of its chimeric monsters being cut boldly into holes, which, variously placed, and always dark, give all kinds of strange and startling expressions, averted and askance, to the fantastic countenances. Perhaps the highest examples of this kind of sculpture-painting are the works of Mino da Fiesole; their best effects being reached by strange angular, and seemingly rude, touches of the chisel. The lips of one of the children on the tombs in the church of the Badia, appear only half finished when they are seen close; yet the expression is farther carried and more ineffable, than in any piece of marble I have ever seen, especially considering its delicacy, and the softness of the child-features. In a sterner kind, that of the statues in the sacristy of St. Lorenzo equals it, and there again by incompletion. I know no example of work in which the forms are absolutely true and complete where such a result is attained; in Greek sculptures is not even attempted. (ellipsis mine)

This is all good stuff for me, because I have a tendency to lean too hard upon craft and ideas of formal perfection, and over the last few years I've been learning about other ways to make a vivid impression, to bring life to a piece. I'm almost done with Seven Lamps, and after that I'll be reading Ruskin's Lectures on Architecture and Painting, from 1853.


  1. Yes! You came across one of those sections. This is why I read all of Stones of Venice and Modern Painters despite all of their less interesting material. There was no way to predict where those passages would be.

  2. I think he tests them out in himself too, these "other ways to make a vivid impression, to bring life to a piece," when he puts very plain and poor words into his very rich sentences; when he is willing to use "spot" and "stick" to stab holes in his own formality (or put full stops there as at the end of poems) with those spitting or cracking sounds they make -- the inalienable endings that are so absolutely alien to "distinguishing characters of vital imitation" and "half his touches are not to realize."

  3. Yeah, I'm reading the penultimate chapter ("The Lamp of Memory") now, all about how we should build for permanence and history, not for expediency. Absolutely turgid, putting me to sleep. Some good ideas in there, but really it's just leaden. But as you know, it could blossom into brilliance at any moment.

    Yes, about the language Ruskin uses. He really does sculpt when he's at his best. I can see him going over his paragraphs, looking for places to highlight, or to catch the reader up for a second, smoothing here and roughing up there.

    Although what really brings the piece to life, if we're talking about Chapter V of The Seven Lamps is Ruskin's enthusiasm for this particular idea of artistic freedom. His joy is unbounded, and his prose is thus loose-limbed and gallops across the page chasing bright shafts of light etc. Ruskin is in ecstasy.

  4. Those are great passages. They put words into ideas that I have felt while looking at artwork or thinking about my own. I've never read Ruskin, but this is interesting stuff.

  5. I really like the first excerpt I quoted here. Ruskin exhorts the artist to be bold and brave and not to be shy about manhandling his influences. He elsewhere talks about his admiration for transitional artworks, where the artist is learning what he can do with his ideas, and Ruskin allows those artists to be sloppy and imprecise while they're figuring new things out.