Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Ruskin Around - Part One

Ok, another entry in my little historical survey of grotesque theorists. This time I'm going to talk about John Ruskin (1819-1900), who advances his theory of the grotesque in Modern Painters and The Stones of Venice. I'm concentrating on the latter, because there is significant overlap on this topic between the multiple volumes of each text. Ruskin wrote a lot, and not only about the grotesque, so I can really only sketch out some of the main points.

Sorry to be a quote-monster, but Ruskin's writing is so emphatic and expressive that it's difficult to resist. He has particular ideas about good and bad, right and wrong, and isn't afraid to build them into his work. Here he is defending his right to judge in the preface to the third volume of Modern Painters:

"It is an idea too frequently entertained, by persons who are not much interested in art, that there are no laws of right or wrong concerning it; and that the best art is that which pleases most widely. Hence the constant allegation of 'dogmatism' against any one who states unhesitatingly either preference or principle, respecting pictures. There are, however, laws of truth and right in painting, just as fixed as those of harmony in music, or of affinity in chemistry. Those laws are perfectly ascertainable by labor, and ascertainable no otherwise" (VI).

You go girl... er, boy.

This attitude registers strongly in his analysis of the grotesque, which he divides into good and bad, noble and ignoble.

But first, some context is probably helpful. The Stones of Venice is an immense three volume work wherein Ruskin talks about the history of Venetian art and architecture; sometimes generally, sometimes literally stone by stone. He was a great artist himself, and produced some beautiful paintings and sketches of Venice.

In the second volume of Stones, Ruskin argues that "grotesqueness" is one of the fundamental ingredients of Gothic architecture, along with savageness, changefulness, naturalism, rigidity and redundance. On this grotesque quality he comments that:

"every reader familiar with Gothic architecture must understand what I mean, and will, I believe, have no hesitation in admitting that the tendency to delight in fantastic and ludicrous, as well as in sublime, images, is a universal instinct of the Gothic imagination" (LXXII).

In the third volume of Stones, Ruskin discusses the transition from Gothic architecture to the square, functional buildings of the industrial revolution. Having spent much time appreciating the Gothic in earlier volumes, he is hardly impressed by this change, which shifts:

"from the Grand Canal to Gower Street; from the marble shaft, and the lancet arch, and the wreathed leafage, and the glowing and melting harmony of gold and azure, to the square cavity in the brick wall" (II).

Basically, from:


Ruskin divides this decent into ugliness into three eras:

"Early Renaissance, consisting of the first corruptions introduced into the Gothic schools: Central or Roman Renaissance, which is the perfectly formed style: and Grotesque Renaissance, which is the corruption of the Renaissance itself" (III).

The grotesque "corruption" of the Renaissance style is understood by Ruskin to reflect a wider corruption of Christian values and the loosening of religion's hold upon the minds and souls of the citizens of Venice.

*Tangent alert* I was very interested to read how he links this moral collapse to the increasing availability and popularity of non-religious reading materials. Because:

"the human mind is not capable of more than a certain amount of admiration or reverence, and that which was given to Horace was withdrawn from David" (CI).

"All the most exalted faculties of man, which, up to that period, had been employed in the service of Faith, were now transferred to the service of Fiction" (CII).

"The habit of using the greatest gifts of imagination upon fictitious subjects, of course destroyed the honor and value of the same imagination used in the cause of truth" (CIII).

Oh, fiction. Look what you did.

[La Lecture, caricature by Louis-LĂ©opold Boilly 1828]

Anyway. It is in volume three, chapter three of Stones that Ruskin gets most vicious in his description of the new style and, consequently, the grotesque.

"The architecture raised at Venice during this period is amongst the worst and basest ever built by the hands of men, being especially distinguished by a spirit of brutal mockery and insolent jest, which, exhausting itself in deformed and monstrous sculpture, can sometimes be hardly otherwise defined than as the perpetuation in stone of the ribaldries of drunkenness" (II).


For Ruskin the "grotesque renaissance" style represents a nexus of social debasement. Yet this poses a problem, since he has already noted the presence of the grotesque in his beloved Gothic architecture. For this reason, he argues, the grotesque must be seen as divided:

"There is jest - perpetual, careless, and not unfrequently obscene - in the most noble work of the Gothic periods; and it becomes, therefore, of the greatest possible importance to examine into the nature and essence of the Grotesque itself, and to ascertain in what respect it is that the jesting of art in its highest flight, differs from its jesting in its utmost degradation" (II).

So, what on earth is the difference between a good and a bad grotesque?

To be continued...


  1. Have you looked at William Hogarth at all? I don't know how he's thought of in academic circles, but I was interested in his writing on beauty (which also considers the beauty of the grotesque if I remember correctly).

  2. I've heard his name mentioned in relation to his 'grotesque' art, but I didn't know he had written on it... Thanks for the tip, I'll check him out!

  3. This is a link to the full text of The Analysis of Beauty:


  4. Thanks Eleanor, I love how these older texts are so freely available on the 'net.

  5. I'm currently studying Ruskin and his materials, to get a broad picture this was a helpful link.


  6. Its good to see how many people are interested in learning about John Ruskin! You must go to Brantwood the home of John Ruskin in the Lake district UK... The house and the surrounding area really gives you an insight into his world! Thanks for the links!

  7. Ah yes I would love to visit his home. I imagine it would be quite a surreal experience!