The Failing Distance: The Autobiographical Impulse in John Ruskin
by Jay Fellows
Johns Hopkins University Press, 187 pp., $10.00
Ruskin knew Mr. Fellows’s kind of critic; sometimes was that kind of critic (as in Modern Painters II)—the one who throws up depth on depth of scaffolding before the cathedral, then swings and scrambles like a monkey through all the pipework. But Ruskin’s very receptiveness prevented him from imposing any one theory on art. He started fresh in front of every work, and was so bowled over by it that his earlier pronouncements seemed worthless. He studied his masters by copying them—and then wrote about what he could not copy: “Tintoret has shown me how to paint leaves. My word, he does leave them with a vengeance. I think you would like to see how he does the trunk, too, with two strokes; one for the light side and one for the dark side, all the way down; and then on go the leaves: never autumn swept them off as he sweeps them on.”
This “flattenability” before the facts was always Ruskin’s strength—first as an art critic, and then as a social critic. Not that he was impressionable in the shallow sense. It was after he had done all his homework that the real greatness stunned him. He could trace and trace, and come nearer each time—but in the lessening distance between his own copies and the original, he saw chasms opening.
I have had a draught of pictures today enough to drown me. I never was so utterly crushed to the earth before any human intellect as I was today—before Tintoret…. He took it so entirely out of me today that I could do nothing at last but lie on a bench and laugh.
He celebrated paintings as great victories, moments when men cracked the code of the universe—split something more basic than the atom. And he constantly remade himself in order to see new things—a fact reflected in the sequence of his various styles, from the crimson robes of early works like Seven Lamps, through the bright fighting armor of Unto This Last, to the involuntary motley of his last (Fors Clavigera) phase.
Mr. Fellows does not have this art for being flattened. He is a builder, and his apparatus gets so intricate that he is at last imprisoned by it, clanking around inside its pipes with a rumble of mere plumbing. It takes some effort to crack his code—but the result can be roughly stated in parable form. Imagine a man bending down to a telescope, and startled by his own reflection cast off the glass of the eyepiece; he ducks his head closer to rid him of himself, and busily focuses a hazy distance into sharper and sharper focus, only to find he is looking at a distant and horribly distinct self. In a panic he straightens up and looks with the naked eye at the dim object far off; and then calmly describes what he can see of it, before falling into a dead …
The Right Ruskin November 13, 1975