Saturday, 23 February 2019

I can see clearly now

*Study of a piece of Brick, to show Cleavage in Burned Clay (1871) 
Watercolour and bodycolour over graphite on wove paper

One-hundred and forty-eight years have passed since its creation but I do not think I may ever see again a more exquisitely rendered and divinely detailed observation of a piece of brick than the one painted by John Ruskin in 1871, currently on display as part of an exhibition of Ruskin’s art and influences/collection  at Two Temple Place, London. Covered in a moss/lichen this humble depiction of a piece of brick, so seemingly small and insignificant in real life, once drawn becomes the object of speculation. Victorian ‘Artist, art critic, educator, social thinker and true polymath’, it was Ruskin [1819-1900] himself that,   

“...urged his audience to ‘Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless; peacocks and lilies for instance’.” (Cooper, 2019, p29)

What could be more relevant a statement today, in a society in which we are so busy, so consumerist focused, working and ‘stressed’ that we are increasingly having to be reminded to stop, consider and be more ‘present’ and active in being more aware. In an exhibition that celebrates the bicentenary of Ruskin’s life it is fascinating and hugely relevant that it should focus on this exact topic, stated in the catalogue itself, 

“This is therefore not so much an exhibition of art as an examination of how Ruskin used imagery to help develop education and wellbeing”(Pullen, 2019, p13)

Long before the term, ‘wellbeing’ as we know it today had been incepted, Ruskin was encouraging people to look and notice the world around them. Drawing and painting for him were a form of enquiry to understand and appreciate nature, architecture better, how the landscape effects us and we in turn have an impact on the landscape in which we walk through, live on, utilise and work on. In some ways it was a moralistic view on the power of art, "To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion all in one."3 Contrary to much of the work at the time it was not even necessarily about capturing an aesthetic form of ‘beauty’, 

“For Ruskin, beauty was not neat; it could be savage, grotesque, changeful, on the point of bursting into full bloom, but never florid or decadent. He offered a new way of experiencing and interacting.” (Cooper, 2019, p4) 

Inside Two Temple Place
I could have lingered in the busy room of Two Temple place for ages looking at this piece of brick, its variation of surfaces, colour, textures and detail. It is the embodiment of what the term, Romanticism means to me; the ‘greatness’ observed in something naturally occurring  on something as mundane or potentially overlooked as a lump of brick. The relationship between nature and the man-made, the brick is made of earth (clay) but is now a man-made thing, the moss is taking over the brick as it decays and returns back to its ‘natural’ state. It becomes its own miniature planet/ecosystem. It is amazing how this one drawing both connects with Ruskin’s appreciation for both architecture and nature but also his opinions that he wrote and spoke about on the importance of the hand-made, understanding where things ‘came-from’ or how they were created and how the rise of capitalism threatens to undermine the rights of workers and value in what is made/produced. 

I confess to not having really known a huge amount about Ruskin prior to this exhibition and whilst I claim to be no expert it is interesting to see that for many of his ideas it seems to me that in many ways, he was a man ahead of his time. Though it is hard to ignore or write about Ruskin without acknowledging that for all his influence in the arts (Pre-Raphaelites, Arts and Crafts movement for example) he himself was a strange and troubled, the speculation that he never consummated his marriage, his controversial fascination with young girls/women and prickly nature are strange but to some extent are perhaps symptomatic of his child-like sense of fascination and obsession for understanding the workings of things that consumed or were at the forefront of his existence. Later in life at the loss of his family and cousin he suffered a mental breakdown from which he never really recovered.

Studies of Birds (assorted artists) from the Ruskin exhibition at Two Temple Place, London
Within the exhibition at Two Temple Place there are examples of Ruskin’s work alongside that of artists such as Turner whose depictions of landscape, weather and nature had a significant influence on Ruskin who sought to not just capture the ‘likeness’ of something through drawing it but use painting/drawing as a way of understanding the atmosphere, the phenomena of what it actually felt like to be in that place i.e. how do you recreate the sensation/the likeness of the wetness of water in a painting of a seascape? Where does water from a mountain stream flow down to, where is it from (he was interested particularly in geology)? There are also numerous drawings of architecture, particularly of Venice, where Ruskin wrote ‘The Stones of Venice’ [1851-3] including a huge painting by John Wharlton Bunney of the Basilica in San Marco square [1877-1882]. Ruskin’s own work and pieces he collected by other artists were donated to the Museum of Sheffield, founded by Ruskin in 1875, as a place where metalworkers could see places such as Venice, that they otherwise would never have been able to see. It was this kind of philanthropy and criticism of capitalism that prompted Ghandi to take Ruskin’s ‘Unto this last’ [1860] as one of his text’s for transforming society.

*Study of a Peacock’s Breast Feather (1873)
Set in a neo-gothic mansion, it is impossible to fail to notice how glaringly appropriate Two Temple Place is as venue for this exhibition. It is worth seeing for the outside stonework (complete with gargoyles) and inside, mahogany-clad walls and stained-glass windows alone. Upstairs is a wall dedicated to images of birds by the likes of Audubon, Turner, Edward Lear, Henry Stacey Marks and others including Ruskin himself. Here a study of a peacock’s breast feather by Ruskin is another painfully beautiful reminder of how the beauty of the whole can be told in one single feather so intently and forensically drawn. This drawing is realistic but isn’t about showing off a technical level of skill, as such but more about the inquisitiveness that drawing and looking at drawings creates. Many of Ruskin’s drawings were unfinished because they were working drawings rather than about creating ‘finished works of art’. A lot of this echoes my own thoughts about drawing and how I use it, personally as both a way of observing or better understanding something more closely but I also use it as a way of escaping and distancing from myself so that all the thoughts and worries one may have become lost in all one’s focus and attention being on the ‘thing’ that is being drawn/looked at. Personally, I am a life-time convert into the benefits of an art education to provide the ability to see intrigue and beauty in the world which is why I still have the need to draw.
In addition to this exhibition I read a succinct new book to coincide with the bicentenary by Research Curator, Suzanne Fagence Cooper, who writes an excellent account of the themes, ideas and teachings in Ruskin’s life have had and continue to have resonance with the present. The following eight sentences taken from the book, offering an insight into why he is still relevant (Cooper, 2019, p8/9);

-          the ways that ‘hand, head and heart’ can work together

-          how drawing makes us notice the overlooked

-          what stories the buildings around us can tell us about the people who made them, and live in them now

-          how we can travel with more care through the landscape, walking and thinking, observing the clouds, or the earth beneath our feet

-          our struggles with love, and with the loss of the people and things we love

-          different responses to our own mental frailty, and the anxieties of others

-          possibilities for working more effectively, and more fairly

-          above all, how we can keep learning, whether we are young or old, in small ways and in great tumultuous revelations

I think the works by Ruskin in the exhibition at Two Temple Place compliments Cooper’s observations quite accurately. For all the artistic delights in this exhibition an unexpected highlight comes in the form of a colourful collection of minerals from Ruskin’s museum in Sheffield and are a fitting reminder of one of Ruskin’s more memorable quotes, “you will never love art well until you love what she mirrors better.” (Pullen, 2019, p37)

‘John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing’ is on at Two Temple Place (for FREE) until April 22nd 2019

‘To See Clearly: Why Ruskin Matters’ by Suzanne Fagence Cooper is available to buy wherever fine books are sold

1                     Cooper, S. F. 2019. To See Clearly: Why Ruskin Matters. Great Britain. Quercus.
2                     Pullen, L (2019) The Power of Seeing. Great Britain. Two Temple Place