III. The House of Life

With the midpoint of the nineteenth century, 1850/51, we come to a watershed moment in the cultural history of the West. Here it’s useful to recall once more the schema from lecture 1.

What marks the mid-century point as decisive is the split that occurs somewhere around 1850/51 between the subjective and objective (i.e., Subjective ≠ Objective). Up to that point, we’ve seen a growing inability to hold together that fusion of subjective and objective posited by Hegel in his movement of Substance Subject. Instead, what we get is at best S ⇒ S/O ⇒ \frac{S}{O}, which is to say Substance that leads to a separation between subjective and objective (S/O) that in turn becomes the primacy of subjective over objective, even as they remain in some sense precariously held together despite increasing tension. So we saw how the absolute principle (necessary development) of the early Romantic era becomes, first, the failure to find a more concrete measure of value in the material sphere of political economy and then the essentially subjective ideal of Byron. But by the mid-century, even this kind of essentially subjective ideal (which assumes the primacy of subjective over objective where both still coexist within the same sphere) is no longer sustainable. So now we get the subjective/objective split, where subjective ≠ objective.

If the subjective/objective split is what marks the mid-century, then the Janus-face that hovers over this moment, looking both forward and backward, is John Ruskin. On the one hand Ruskin distinctly looks backward, to the kind of symbolism we find in the early Romantic period, where natural objects reveal (as Coleridge put it) the “translucence of the Eternal in and through the Temporal.” The “natural supernaturalism,” in other words, of Thomas Carlyle. It’s the belief in this kind of symbolic relationship between natural objects and a kind of immanent divine presence that makes possible the project of Modern Painters. It only makes sense to spend 5 volumes talking about organic forms if you believe they somehow express a divine order within things. Because the kind of organic forms Ruskin is talking about in Modern Painters aren’t really just defined by a necessary relation between their parts (as Kant would have it). Instead, they’re clearly shot through with a kind of luminescence, a splendor that can come only from a belief that these organic forms, these natural objects, are expressive of something beyond what they are. Yet even as Ruskin was turning out one volume after another of Modern Painters (most of which hardly discuss painters at all), he was also engaged in a very different kind of project, one that would take shape in the 3-volume work called Stones of Venice that appeared in 1851. And this, you might say, is the other side of the Janus-face. This is the face that looks forward to what would become, increasingly, the tendency of the later nineteenth century. In Stones of Venice what Ruskin put forward was a kind of constructivism that had nothing to do with nature, one based on purely formal architectural principles that could be combined to create the churches and palaces of Venice. It was, then, no accident that Ruskin called his work Stones of Venice: he meant, I take it, to refer specifically to those building blocks this new constructivism would employ, out of which it would create new, distinctly human edifices. But the constructivism doesn’t end with Ruskin. At almost exactly the same time Ruskin was finishing Stones of Venice, a massive new structure of cast-iron and glass went up in London that would go far beyond anything he had in mind in his study of the architecture of Venice: the Crystal Palace, or—to call it by its more technical name—the building designed to house the Great Exhibition of 1851. Ruskin would recoil from it in horror, as he did from so much of the later 19th century work he had done so much to anticipate and even to spawn. Nevertheless, we can find at the heart of it the same kind of constructive principle we find in Stones itself: the sense that a small number of architectural motifs can be combined and multiplied almost indefinitely to create an entire structure. At the end, we’ll see how this same principle has a long afterlife, extending even into the late twentieth century. In Stones, however, Ruskin didn’t just anticipate late 19th and even late 20th century constructivism. He also—and this is another aspect of his Janus-face—looks forward to the increasing subjectivism of late 19th century painting, and specifically its preoccupation with color as an element independent of linear definition and even of any kind of figural specificity altogether. In this he wasn’t alone—Turner, you might say, was there before him. But the presence of a similar color preoccupation in Stones, and the way in which it gradually comes to achieve autonomy from anything like Nature, or natural objects, offer a distinct hint of what is to come, and specifically of what we’ll find when we look at Whistler, Wilde and Pater. Yet Ruskin would savagely reject Whistler, even though the groundwork of so much of what we find in Whistler was already there in Turner. Take it as one more index of the difficult and complex process by which a new formative principle comes to be.

It’s now time to turn to Ruskin’s Venice. And for that we can do no better, I think, than to look at how Ruskin himself introduces it:

Now we can see nothing but what seems a low and monotonous dockyard wall, with flat arches to let the tide through it;–this is the railroad bridge, conspicuous above all things. But at the end of those dismal arches there rises, out of the wide water, a straggling line of low and confused brick buildings, which, but for the many towers which are mingled among them, might be the suburbs of an English manufacturing town. Four or five domes, pale, and apparently at a greater distance, rise over the centre of the line; but the object which first catches the eye is a sullen cloud of black smoke brooding over the northern half of it, and which issues from the belfry of a church. It is Venice. (Works IX, 415)

Here Ruskin seems firmly determined to give no more to Venice than what’s strictly necessary—the minimalist perspective, you might say, on what first catches the visitor’s eye. And yet, in retrospect, we can see it all as quite deliberate. Because what Ruskin wants to emphasize is precisely what Venice has in common with the ugliest English manufacturing town: that both are cities built from the same general constructive principles, so that what distinguishes Venice from Manchester or Sheffield isn’t that its formative principles are so much better but simply that in Venice they were developed further, until they became something like aesthetic architecture.

Nonetheless, they all begin in the same way, and that’s precisely what Ruskin wants to emphasize in his discussion of what he calls the theory of the Arch Line. Consider his illustration, in Stones, of several forms of stone arches:

If you look carefully, you’ll notice how these 3 forms of arches manage the stress of overhead weight in a progressively more complex way. The 1st is a simple plinth that stretches from one pillar over to the other, placed so as to support all the weight above. The 2nd makes use of 2 plinths propped against each other. Here the stress management is more sophisticated: because of the angle, all the burden of the weight above flows away on either side of the central point. Finally, the 3rd form, the arch, is the most sophisticated of the 3 because it works to distribute the burden of the weight over the whole curve of the arch. So much for pure functionalism.

What Ruskin now goes on to show is how pure functionalism becomes art. Look at his next illustration, where he surveys different arch forms: Of all these, the most perfect, he says (if I remember correctly) is the middle arch in the 3rd row up from the bottom. Clearly, it’s an exercise in the connoisseurship of arches. Note how the point where the middle arch in the 3rd row breaks upward is neither too high nor too low, but exactly where it ought to be aesthetically. In a typical Ruskin marriage of form + function, this is probably the best shape in terms of an even distribution of stress or weight, but also the form that appeals the most to the eye. Out of forms like these, Ruskin can then go on to construct an entire church or palace in the Venetian Gothic style. And the fact that he can do this proves any edifice can be reduced to a few basic architectural motifs + a constructive principle. Nor do we find any reference in all this to Nature, or the imitation of Nature. In contrast to Modern Painters, the aesthetic of Stones is distinctly moving toward complete autonomy.

With his treatment of color in the same work, however, Ruskin would push this tendency much farther. After a full discussion of architectural forms or motifs in vol. I, Ruskin moves on in vol. II to talk about the use of color in St. Mark’s Basilica. Significantly, he begins by pointing out the relative neglect of color in aesthetic appreciation:

The perception of colour is a gift just as definitely granted to one person, and denied to another, as an ear for music; and the very first requisite for true judgment of St. Mark’s, is the perfection of that colour-faculty which few people ever set themselves seriously to find out whether they possess or not. For it is on its value as a piece of perfect and unchangeable colouring, that the claims of this edifice to our respect are finally rested…. It possesses the charm of colour in common with the greater part of the architecture, as well as of the manufactures, of the East; but the Venetians deserve especial note as the only European people who appear to have sympathized to the full with the great instinct of the Eastern races. (Works X, 97-98)

At first it seems almost as if Ruskin just wants to highlight one of the more esoteric architectural qualities. But then he goes on to say: “For it is on its value as a piece of perfect and unchangeable colouring, that the claims of this edifice to our respect are finally rested.” What??? After all that discussion of wall and pier bases, cornices, capitals, and roofs, to be told that only color matters? What’s going on here? Clearly Ruskin’s moving away from the marriage of form + function that dominated vol. I. But it isn’t just about a shift to a different architectural principle. Although it’s possible to see color as a kind of architectural ornament, we can also see how it might be possible to consider it quite independently of architecture altogether.

Later, in fact, Ruskin offers just that—a discussion of color that’s more or less independent of architecture:

The fact is, we none of us enough appreciate the nobleness and sacredness of colour. Nothing is more common than to hear it spoken of as a subordinate beauty. Such expressions are used for the most part in thoughtlessness; and if the speakers would only take the pains to imagine what the world and their own existence would become, if the blue were taken from the sky, and the gold from the sunshine, and the verdue from the leaves, and the crimson from the blood which is the life of man, the flush from the cheek, the darkness from the eye, the radiance from the hair,–if they could but see, for an instant, white human creatures living in a white world,– they would soon feel what they owe to colour. The fact is, that, of all God’s gifts to the sight of man, colour is the holiest, the most divine, the most solemn. We speak rashly of gay colour and sad colour, for colour cannot at once be good and gay. All good colour is in some degree pensive, the loveliest is melancholy, and the purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love colour the most. (Works X, 172-73)

We might almost be reading Melville’s famous meditation on whiteness and color in“The Whiteness of the Whale” from Moby-Dick, published, significantly, the very same year as Stones of Venice. When Ruskin speaks of the “nobleness” and “sacredness” of color (and, later, of color as “the holiest, the most divine, and the most solemn” of God’s gifts), he clearly has something more in mind than just architectural ornament. Specifically, I would argue that by shifting his perspective to color on natural objects what Ruskin wants to put forward is a new concept of symbolism. It’s different from the symbolism of Modern Painters because it has nothing to do with the organic, or with the forms found in nature. Instead, Ruskin seems to be working around to a more subjective notion of symbolism. After all, color exists only in the perceiver’s eye. And that would suggest Ruskin believes the source of the sacredness of color comes ultimately from the mind itself, rather than from God or nature.

And perhaps it’s this latent implication that leads to the final discussion of color in Stones vol. II, where the primacy passes from color in nature to color considered purely by itself—in other words, color arrangement or harmony:

We are to remember… that the arrangement of colours and lines is an art analogous to the composition of music, and entirely independent of the representation of facts. Good colouring does not necessarily convey the image of anything but itself. It consists in certain proportions and arrangements of rays of light, but not in likeness to anything. A few touches of certain greys and purples laid by a master’s hand on white paper will be good colouring; as more touches are added beside them, we may find out that they were intended to represent a dove’s neck, and we may praise, as the drawing advances, the perfect imitation of the dove’s neck. But the good colouring does not consist in that imitation, but in the abstract qualities and relations of the grey and purple. (Works X, 215-16)

I remember years ago being in the Prado in Madrid, face to face with a Velasquez portrait of one of the royal princesses, and noticing that the whole painting wasn’t really about any royal princess at all, but just about a particular kind of color harmony between different shades of vermilion red and gray. It’s the same principle here. Notice how careful Ruskin is to emphasize that the use of color is not representational: “entirely independent of the representation of facts… does not necessarily convey the image of anything but itself.” And obviously, once he puts forward the analogy between color arrangement and musical composition, any sense of color as representational disappears completely. Later, we’ll see how the same idea gets taken up by Whistler in his Nocturne in Black and Gold and his Nocturne in Blue and Gold—2 works Ruskin would violently, and very publicly, criticize. Here, however, he’s obviously not worried (as he will be later) about representational likeness at all. On the contrary, he even goes on to suggest that the real base of a master painter’s depiction of a dove isn’t the attempt to portray its likeness at all, but rather an effort to create a particular color arrangement of gray and purple. His sense that the painter was primarily interested in “the abstract qualities and relations of the grey and the purple” shows that this color harmony, in Ruskin’s mind, has now acquired complete autonomy, to the extent that it— rather than the natural dove—becomes the formative principle behind the painter’s work.

In watching how Ruskin moves from color as architectural ornament to color as a completely independent formative/compositional principle, we might very well suspect he didn’t get there just by himself. Specifically, we might wonder about the possible influence of a painter Ruskin acknowledged more frequently than anyone else as his master and idol—J.M.W. Turner. As a way to pursue this further, consider these watercolors of Venice from Turner’s late years:

I’ve tried to arrange these in a sequence determined roughly by the time of day they might conceivably represent. So we begin with PPT 3.4 which looks like dawn. Note the low, straggling line of buildings at the skyline, much as described by Ruskin in his initial approach to Venice at the end of Stones vol. I. These are indistinct enough—just a blue wash, really—but even more so are the boats in the foreground, indicated only by single curved reddish-brown strokes that are even allowed to “bleed” a bit. Likewise the sky shows some reddish squiggles as well. What stands out most is the relative faintness of all the colors, which makes the whole just a delicate color blend.

PPT 3.5 is the most distinctly representational of the lot, because it shows a few facades in some detail. Nonetheless, even here the dominant note is the color contrast between the bluish-green of the left half v. the light, sandy tint of the right: a contrast between the sea in shadow and the palaces lit up by the midday sun.
PPT 3.6 is again a light-dark contrast between the pale yellow middle left, above the skyline, and all the rest in darker violet-blue. Here, though, the feeling once again is distinctly of color washes. The sea, which makes up the bottom half of the composition, is after all nothing but blue color washes of varying darkness and intensity, yet all of the same tonality. Meanwhile the upper half (i.e., the sky) offers a very similar violet-blue wash, just a bit lighter, with some of it even allowed to delicately permeate the pale yellow portion of the middle left. Thus the whole composition becomes a study in tonality as much as color, with one tone allowed to infuse the whole throughout.
Finally, PPT 3.7 displays a signature Turner motif: sunset. To it, everything else is clearly subordinated. So the lower half foreground is hardly colored at all, while the buildings come across as nothing more than a purple blur. The center, and focal point, is a small, but concentrated blood-red wash, against a luminous yellow background. We’ll come back to Turner’s sunset later when we discuss Whistler and Wilde. But for now, note that even here, no circular disk to indicate the sun—just a bright red color wash to show where its light is gradually disappearing.
But if Ruskin could accept and even embrace the move in late Turner toward composition defined purely by color, what he couldn’t accept was the very different face of London that emerged just as Stones was being finished: the Crystal Palace.

Designed by Sir Joseph Paxton to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, it consisted entirely of cast-iron and plate glass. Its innovative quality lay in its being composed of modular sections made to fit together so that they could be manufactured elsewhere and then brought to Hyde Park where they were quickly combined to form an enormous structure. Any rain that might fall on the structure was easily channeled into gutter patterns within the cast-iron frame so that it could quickly run off. Meanwhile, the glass allowed sunlight to pass through everywhere so that exhibits had no need of any other illumination. And, to prevent overheating, open spaces at various places in the structure helped to provide ample ventilation.

PPT 3.9 shows what it was like on the inside: luminous, airy, and with plenty of space for the enormous crowds who visited the Exhibition to wander around at their leisure. Altogether, then, it was a great success, one of those moments in the history of architectural design that looks forward to so much of what is to come. Nonetheless, Ruskin hated it. And yet, ironically, it’s distinctly possible to see the Crystal Palace as simply another expression of the same kind of constructivism we find in Stones of Venice. Like the architecture described in Stones, it consists of just a few architectural elements or motifs capable of being endlessly combined. And, like the Venetian palaces Ruskin wrote about, it, too, married form and function in its architectural motifs. The fact that Ruskin found himself absolutely unable to accept it points, I think, to the way formative principles work historically: not by a single forward impulse, but often by a movement that simultaneously displays both a backward and a forward tendency. So it was that a backward look at the Venetian palaces of the late Gothic period could yield a formative principle that would also help to produce the most forward-looking structure of London in 1851, the Crystal Palace. Later we’ll see how in other ways Ruskin was equally unable to anticipate or to accept implications of the color doctrine that he espoused in Stones of Venice when these came to expression in the work of J.A.M. Whistler and, subsequently, Impressionism.
Meanwhile, however, we have time for just a quick look at one of the late 20th century developments of the constructivist model first put forward by Sir Joseph Paxton in the Crystal Palace: the Hong Kong-Shanghai Bank, designed by Sir Norman Foster. Like the Crystal Palace, the Hong Kong-Shanghai Bank was designed by Foster in the form of modular sections that could be quickly assembled (given its downtown Hong Kong location, a very good idea—just as the quick assembly potential of the Crystal Palace, for reasons of economy and minimal disturbance, was equally good for its time). Of course, the Bank is quite a bit taller than the Crystal Palace—hence the need for more steel structural support framing it (parenthetically, though, I should mention that on a recent visit to Hong Kong, standing just across the street from it, I failed even to recognize it until it was pointed out by my more observant wife, so dwarfed has it become by even taller edifices). Nonetheless, we can see very much the same idea at work: the minimalist steel-glass construction, designed to allow the maximum amount of light to enter in, and so arranged as to give the same kind of spacious, airy, and luminous feel. It attests, we might say, to the potential force, even in a distant aftertime, of the formative principle espoused by Ruskin in 1851.