NEW HAVEN — “Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin” is both densely packed and splendidly varied, as befits the work of the author whose bicentenary it celebrates. The show runs through Dec. 8 at the Yale Center for British Art.
Amid all the books and works of art and personal items (Timbuk2 might want to consider doing a knock-off of Ruskin’s mailbag, it’s so worn-leather handsome), the heart of the show isn’t an instance of human handiwork. It’s a display of a dozen mineral specimens from Ruskin’s personal collection. Fabulously beautiful in their own right, they rival the five Turners in the show; and few artists have set the beauty bar higher than Turner did.
The specimens bespeak several fundamental themes in Ruskin’s long, dauntingly prolific, and extremely influential career: the indivisibility of nature and beauty, the incalculable benefit of looking , and the even greater benefit of ignoring aesthetic convention. That last theme is all the more useful for someone creating a new set of aesthetic conventions, as Ruskin did.
“I know this is heresy, but I never shrink from any conclusions, however contrary to human authority, to which I am led by observance of natural principles,” he wrote in “The Seven Lamps of Architecture” (1849). This statement is inspired by his having just declared, “Never give separate mouldings separate colors.” No matter was too small for Ruskin to lay down the law.
Ruskin published the first volume of work that made his reputation, “Modern Painters” (1843), when he was 24. The marking up of a set of page proofs from volume four shows how intensely, and intensively, he went about his business. Already he was writing like an old man: vehement, heedless of received wisdom, with the velocity that comes from knowing there is no time to waste. Ruskin’s collected works take up 39 volumes. There’s a reason that mailbag looks so worn. The Victorians specialized in titans of intellectual prose — Macaulay, Carlyle, Newman, Huxley — but none was more titanic than Ruskin. That is, no one had such a direct impact on his readers. Charlotte Brontë spoke for many when she said of “Modern Painters,” “I feel now as if I had been walking blindfold[ed] — this book seems to give me eyes.”
The show includes a portrait that the photographer Frederick Hollyer took around 1895 (Ruskin died in 1900). By then, he really was an old man, with a patriarchal beard and gaze like granite. He looks like an Old Testament prophet — or, more accurately, seer. Note how the noun derives from a verb. The energy that produced those 39 fat volumes can be felt on every page he wrote. Usually in a good way, but not always: Although related, vehemence and eloquence are different, the way that mass and muscle are.
Seeing, for Ruskin, was as much moral as optical or aesthetic. For a time, he saw art — and architecture — and nature — and society — with a phenomenal freshness. Such intensity of scrutiny deployed so widely produced a body of work that was contradictory as well as multi-faceted. The same man who championed Turner denounced Whistler, which is like cultivating the tree and trying to saw off the branch. The same man who championed workers and the poor praised the Confederacy and British imperialism. The late poet Geoffrey Hill nicely captured this instability of thought when he remarked, “It is only Ruskinian Tories these days who would sound like old-fashioned Marxists.”
A much smaller Ruskin show last spring at Harvard’s Houghton Library largely focused on his social and political impact. Gandhi, for example, was a great admirer. The exhibition takes its title from a collection of Ruskin’s political essays, which he translated into Gujarat. A copy of a 1951 edition is in the show. While including those aspects of his life and work, the YCBA gives greater emphasis to art and architecture.
Among other things, this means a visitor need know nothing about Ruskin to find numerous pleasures in “Unto This Last.” Those start with the Turners, of course, and that display of minerals (which also includes samples from Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History. They extend to Ruskin’s own artwork, of which there are multiple examples of watercolors and drawings. He was an excellent if not quite inspired draftsman. An exception is an untitled plant sketch of remarkable dynamism and expressivity. It’s like a demonstration of Ruskin’s injunction to “go to Nature in all simpleness of heart . . . rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing” (and this from a man seriously drawn to scorn).
The oddest thing in “Unto This Last” isn’t from Ruskin but about him. A wall text notes that he “advocated for a return to a hierarchical society that many readers then and now have rightly found repellent.” Really, “rightly”: Is this an art exhibition or an op-ed page? Consider, as a hypothetical, a centenary Ruskin exhibition the Yale University Art Gallery might have mounted (the YCBA didn’t open until 1977). Politics at Yale and in the humanities were rather different in 1919. Wall text back then would likelier have described Ruskin’s beliefs about the dignity of the working man and education of women as “rightly repellent.” Regardless of ideology, telling museumgoers what they should and should not think is repellent in its own right.
“Peterloo and Protest,” a small, forceful show that runs through Dec. 1, lacks the political contradictoriness of “Unto This Last.” Its inspiration is another bicentenary, that of what become known as the Peterloo Massacre. British soldiers attacked a peaceful protest in Manchester, killing at least 15 and injuring hundreds. The English director Mike Leigh’s film about it was released earlier this year.
The exhibition argues that Peterloo served as a kind of taproot for public political protest in Britain — and perhaps beyond. The show concludes with a Richard Hamilton print of the Kent State shootings. This places a very great weight of argument on a terrible but perhaps not pivotal event. It places no less great a weight on three dozen works of art, that they should do the labor of many more. Those works include prints, photographs, old newspapers, a portrait bust. In a show that’s understandably otherwise-subdued in appearance, a Cruikshank caricature of George IV in the guise of Henry VIII is boisterous and funny. It’s also a reminder that few things are more subversive than the alliance of rage and wit.
UNTO THIS LAST: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin
PETERLOO AND PROTEST
At Yale Center for British Art, 1080 Chapel St., New Haven, through Dec. 8 and Dec. 1, respectively. 877-274-8278, britishart.yale.edu
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.