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BRITAIN'S TATE GALLERY IS REORGANIZED AND THE OLD BUILDING IS RELAUNCHED WITH A MAGNIFICENT EXHIBITION WHICH CELEBRATES THE LIFE AND VISION OF JOHN RUSKIN, THE NATION'S GREATEST CRITIC. THE MILLENIUM WHEEL DOMINATES THE LONDON SKYLINE. SPECTRUM EXHIBITION, THE BEST OF FURNITURE DESIGN.

On New Year's Day 1844, John Ruskin's present from his father was Turner's 'Slavers throwing over the Dead and Dying -- Typhon coming on'. It was an extraordinary and magnificent gift: awash alike with brilliant sunset colour, the swirling misty sea of sharks, squids and despairing people; it was simultaneously a celebration of the wonders of nature and a dramatic artistic attack on slavery, which had nobly been abolished in the British Empire by the arguments of people like Brougham and Wilberforce 33 years before the painting was made in 1840.

In a sense, the picture is an emblem of Ruskin's life and character: in the swirling waves, despairing limbs, light and paint there is already a sketch of the interconnected tissue of ideas and feelings about reality, society, art and nature which informed Ruskin throughout his life. The new exhibition [*] at London's Tate Gallery at Millbank is an astonishing attempt to portray the mind of a vastly prolific, often perverse genius who inspired as diverse a range of apostles as the Pre-Raphaelites, Proust, Morris, the Symbolists, Tolstoy, the Labour Party and Gandhi and hence some of the make-up of modern India and Britain.

The Tate enterprise is a portrait, but inevitably less than complete, because it has to focus on the visual aspects of Ruskin's work, and cannot easily come to terms with his social and scientific theories. Nor can it clearly tell how architecture was the hub of all his thought. It was by brooding on the Nature of Gothic in the sixth chapter of the second volume of The Stones of Venice that he began to evolve his riposte to the horrors of industrialization with the ideal of the nobility of craftsmanship, the dignity of the individual worker and the necessity of having a system of thought which could combat the destructive system. (The chapter was later reprinted as a popular pamphlet for working people.)

But architecture does figure largely in the exhibition -- wonderfully in his own drawings, particularly those of Venice, where there is a great tenderness and understanding of the great decaying fabric of what had once been the world's richest city in the fourteenth century by a man who was a citizen of its counterpart five hundred years later. He could have been a splendid topographical artist in his own right, but luckily, his wealth (which came from Spanish Domecq sherry) allowed him to use all his talents: writer, critic, savant, collector, painter, theorist and, above all, visionary.

He was the man who could SEE: ourselves and the world that makes us. What he saw is shown in pictures from his own collection, those he admired, and many he made himself.

Many critics have commented that the Tate show demonstrates incompatibilities in Ruskin's sensibility. How could, they ask, he have loved the swirling chaotic impasto of Turner's later seascapes and, at the same time, the flat, thin, precisely drawn figures of the Pre-Raphaelites? The answer is simultaneously simple and complex. Most of us in the pluralist post-modern era can see that both are wonderful in different ways. But what is very difficult to appreciate is that Ruskin saw them as complementary, and that Turner was the father of modern art. In his eyes, they were striving to capture the essence of nature (and humanity). Art should be true to reality, but at the same time it should idealize it: make us aware of the awesome complexity of what he had been brought up to believe was God's creation (to the extent that he was made by his mother to read the Bible from end to end repetitively). And art should teach how we can work in harmony with nature and each other.

The Tate show is a triumph. Homage to the country's greatest critic is a most appropriate way of signalling the new role of Tate Millbank[**] as the national repository of British art. Richard MacCormac (the architect of the splendid Ruskin Museum in Lancaster AR June 1998) has designed a beautifully lit and poetically coloured (by Jocasta Innes) maze of spaces, which lead you through the mind of the great man from the luminous brilliance of his youth to the dark and terrible days of his madness.

The exhibition is as near as you will ever get to seeing as Ruskin saw. It has been brilliantly put together by Robert Hewison, Ian Warrell, and Stephen Wildman.

Go and see it.

(*.) Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites. Until 29 May.

(**.) The other Tate, which holds the modem collections, is about to open at Bonkoide (p48). When the Millbank building was opened in 1897, contemporary British art was the cynosure of the world, and there was no incompatibility between the duolfunction of being British and modern.
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Author:DAVEY, PETER
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 1, 2000
Words:789
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