Great Ideas Collection: Ruskin

In the next of our series exploring the books of Penguin’s Great Ideas Collection, Sophie Kingham reviews John Ruskin’s ‘On Art and Life’ . 

Taken from other works by Ruskin, On Art and Life features two of the art historian’s essays. The first is The Nature of Gothic, which comes from The Stones of Venice, a discourse on Venetian art and architecture; the second essay, The Work of Iron in Nature, Art, and Policy, is taken from a series of lectures that Ruskin gave at several cities around England.

The Nature of Gothic originally appeared alongside essays of the Byzantine and Renaissance periods, providing an architectural history of Venice that ironically also  provides a platform for Ruskin’s opinions of Victorian England.

He starts by describing how a piece of architecture can be classified as Gothic;

“Gothic architecture has external forms and internal elements. Its elements are certain mental tendencies of the builders, legibly expressed in it; as fancifulness, love of variety, love of richness, and such others. Its external forms are pointed arches, vaulted roofs, etc. and unless both the elements and the forms are there, we have no right to call the style gothic.”

Ruskin goes on to describe the most important characteristics or ‘moral elements’ of the gothic style, stating that savageness was the most important, followed by changefulness, naturalism, grotesqueness, rigidity and redundancy.

Describing each of these elements in turn, Ruskin develops this essay into a social analysis of industrial labour; “You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both”. If you use someone as a tool to developing something, you hinder their minds and their creativity with the limits that you put on them; a man who focuses all of his attentions on a flawless finish or imitating another object shows no artistic capability, and is merely a slave.

“The workman was … a slave” according to Ruskin; he felt that a man “must take his workmen as he finds them” and allow them to focus their energies on the design to “render the whole work as noble as the intellect of the age can make it”. And if “as in Gothic work, there is perpetual change both in design and execution, the workman must have been altogether set free” and allowed to use his mind wholly to the job at hand.

Carrying on from this essay on Gothic structures, Ruskin examines the use of iron and how its structure might lead to greater aesthetic fulfilment.

He begins by trying to convince his audience that rusty iron is not hideous and can actually have a dramatic effect on the landscape.

“Because we cannot use a rusty knife or razor so well as a polished one, we suppose it to be a great defect in iron that it is subject to rust. But not at all. On the contrary, the most perfect and useful state of it is that ochreous stain; and therefore it is endowed with so ready a disposition to get itself into that state … for in that condition it fulfils its most important functions in the universe.”

Without iron in nature, everything would have a grey quality to them; it is that orange stain of rust that feeds the earth with the minerals and nutrition that help it to thrive and take on a great aesthetic appearance.

In Ruskin’s opinion, “iron is eminently a ductile and tenacious substance” that can provide a great material for art pieces and weaponry as well as providing for the earth. This versatile material can be sculptured and manipulated into many shapes, but often only acts as security railings. Ruskin tries to convince others that iron can be used artistically.

These two essays together, The Nature of Gothic and The Work of Iron, although on two completely separate topics, bring together Ruskin’s ideas of the connections between art, nature and society. They all affect each other and can make the world a better place, if executed correctly.

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