The Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: A Note to Chapter Two

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Laocoön: an Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry, trans. E. A. McCormick (Indianapolis, 1962), 17, wrote that the portrayal in the visual arts of pain, or any strong emotion, inevitably becomes grotesque: "Simply imagine Laocoön's mouth forced wide open, and then judge! Imagine him screaming, and then look! . . . The wide-open mouth, aside from the fact that the rest of the face is thereby twisted and distorted in an unnatural and loathsome manner, becomes in painting a mere spot and in sculpture a cavity, with most repulsive effect." According to Lessing, a "single moment, if it is to receive immutable permanence from art, must express nothing transitory. . . . The prolongation of such [transitory] phenomena in art, whether agreeable or otherwise, gives them such an unnatural appearance that they make a weaker impression the more often we look at them, until they finally fill us with disgust or horror" (20). Citing the ancient painter Timomachus, he explains that the proper way to "display extreme passion" (p. 20) is to portray the moment before or after the transitory event or effect, so that the audience's imagination completes the situation. This notion of the decisive moment, which one encounters in many writers on the arts, informs both Ruskin's own attitudes toward the depiction of emotion (4.203-205) and his idea that landscape painting should capture the sense of growth and change in scenery. He writes, for example, that "the great quality about Turner's drawings which more especially proves their transcendent truth is, the capability they afford us of reasoning on past and future phenomena" (3.487).


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