Decorative Initial Thus far we have observed Ruskin employing his various modes of word painting to educate our eyes about both nature and those who have attempted to paint her. His emphasis here is upon reproducing visual experience in words, and his successful re-creation of his own experiences before art and nature fulfills his own definitions of imaginative art. His second major use of such word painting in his art criticism — to interpret the meaning of a work of art — differs, in that although he still re-creates the experience he also explains and interprets that experience to us, of course, even in his most apparently pure word painting, his literary allusions, mythological references, and analogies do not permit his descriptions to remain entirely on a visual level; nonetheless, the kind of descriptions at which we have looked thus far places chief importance upon conveying a visual experience of place and object. With his more explicitly interpretative passages, in contrast, he matches each experience of appearance with an experience of meaning. Perhaps the finest example of such interpretative method — both because it lies so close to the center of his thought and because it had such an effect upon the Pre-Raphaelites — occurs in his reading of Tintoretto's Scuola di San Rocco Annunciation in his chapter on the penetrative imagination. After briefly [143/144] describing the gentle vision of Fra Angelico, he prepares us for the dif- ferent imaginative world of Tintoretto:

Severe would be the shock and painful the contrast, if we could pass in an instant from that pure vision [of Fra Angelico] to the wild thought of Tintoret. For not in meek reception of the adoring messenger, but startled by the rush of his horizontal and rattling wings, the Virgin sits, not in the quiet loggia, not by the green pasture of the restored soul, but houseless, under the shelter of a palace vestibule ruined and abandoned, with the noise of the axe and the hammer in her ears, and the tumult of a city round about her desolation. The spectator turns away at first revolted, from the central object of the picture forced painfully and coarsely foward, a mass of shattered brickwork, with the plaster mildewed away from it and the mortar mouldering from its seams. [4.264]

Re-creating the picture and the spectator's experience of it, Ruskin goes on to point out that at first these ruins and the carpenter's tools beneath them appear to do little more than give the painter a means of alluding to the occupation of Joseph. But then, observing important elements in the picture's composition, he leads us to its meaning. When the spectator "looks at the composition of the picture," Ruskin tells us, "he will find the whole symmetry of it depending on a narrow line of light, the edge of a carpenter's square, which connects these unused tools with an object at the top of the brickwork, a white stone, four square, the corner-stone of the old edifice" [4.264-65] Such visual elements lead to imaginative, symbolical ones, for this annunciation, Ruskin finds, deploys the traditional iconography of typological, or figural, symbolism; that is, the means by which Christians read the Old Testament in terms of foreshadowings of Christ. Thus "the ruined house is the Jewish dispensation; that obscurely arising in the dawning of the sky is the Christian; but the corner-stone of the old building remains, though the builders' tools lie idle beside it, and the stone which the builders refused is become the Headstone of the Corner." [It was this section of Modern Painters (which demonstrated to Holman Hunt and his friends the possibility of reconciling elaborate symbolism with a detailed realism) that occasioned the severest criticism of Ruskin by the Art-Journal, whose writer was apparently unaware of the tradition it draws upon. (See n. 43 above.) For the importance of this passage to Hunt, see "The Influence of John Ruskin" in my book on Holman Hunt. For the importance of typology in Ruskin 's thought, see Landow, Aesthetic and Critical Theories pp. 321-457] Citing Psalm 118, Ruskin provides us with both the text and its traditional symbolic reading. Most important, he uses his capacity for word painting, iconographical interpretation, and compositional analysis to provide us with the experience of one who gradually realizes the meaning of a work of art. In other words, as part of his rhetoric of vision, he does not simply tell us what the picture means. Rather he furnishes us with the experience of perceiving that meaning — thus again fulfilling his own definitions of imaginative art.

Ruskin repeats these procedures many times in the course of his art and social criticism. Since he firmly believes that imaginative art can take [144/145] form in either realistic or symbolic modes, or in those which combine the two, he himself often conducts his argument by means of wonderfully effective allegories or, as he chose to call them, symbolical grotesques; see, for example, his superb description of the Goddess of Getting-on in "Traffic" (18.450-53) and his description of the mechanization of pleasure in "Modern" Art (19.216-17). Another major use of his complex rhetoric of vision and satire appears in his skillful interpretations of paintings, buildings, and myths as emblems of a nation's or a culture's world view. (This last technique, or aspect, of the Ruskinian method is that on which Pater draws so heavily in The Renaissance and his other writings on the arts.) But all of Ruskin's many maneuvers succeed in educating us to see art with fresher, more delighted eyes. As a defender of Ruskin wrote in 1863,

It may be asked when this educating function of the art critic is to cease. It is like asking when schoolmasters are to cease.... [The critic] will have to train the public in those eternal truths which are the beginning of criticism. He and his successors will have to repeat them over and over again so long as civilization shall endure. — P. G. H[ammerton], "Art Criticism," Cornhill Magazine, 8 (1863), 336-37."


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Last modified 8 December 2006