On a beautiful sunny morning, I entered York Art Gallery’s brooding new exhibition ‘Ruskin, Turner and the Storm Cloud’, an exploration primarily focussing on the works of John Ruskin (1819-1900), on the year of his 200th birthday, and their critical relationships with the works of artist JMW Turner (1775-1851) and other artists. In conjunction with this, I was delighted to learn through this exhibition of the other inspirations and common themes of Ruskin’s work, such as climate change and war. Delicately touched upon also is Ruskin’s mental health, affected by his bleak world view and expressed through his art works’ subject choices.
Upon entering, the exhibition presented me with a quotation by Ruskin on Turner, immediately focussing itself on their critical relationship; Turner was an incredibly important figure to Ruskin: “[He was] in every faculty of the imagination… the painter and poet of the day.” In addition to this quotation, a short introduction to the exhibition links both artists’ works’ quite simply through how they approached the subject matter of nature, landscapes, and skies. While Ruskin was concerned with the effects of industrialisation on the climate, weather patterns and landscape, he admired Turners’ works as he saw them as capturing “the remnants of a pre-industrial atmosphere”, presenting the magnificent Earth in all its majesty which he viewed to be so vulnerable.
This point is highlighted through the works displayed in the first hall. On the right-hand side Turner’s watercolours of landscapes are hung; plans for future works painted in the moment in a simple, loose, expressive style, articulating the powerful splendour of nature. They are largely very undetailed yet completely comprehensible both in what they were representing, such as landscapes and skies, and in the emotive responses Turner was trying to elicit. One watercolour in particular drew my attention, where bold, black brushstrokes communicated clearly dark clouds as well as the emotive core of the scene, that of a brooding, heavy and frightening experience in the storm.
On the opposite side of the hall, larger, Romantic ‘finished’ paintings by Turner are displayed showing the development from the expressive sense of scene displayed in his watercolours, to a more detailed, naturalistic style of painting which, nonetheless, still maintains the emotive atmospheric core seen in his watercolours. His working style is presented clearly, showing his focus on harnessing the power of the scenes he witnessed, which he would then develop in order to achieve more refined paintings, allowing him to whilst maintain the scenes’ original energy and vivacity.
Alongside Turner’s early watercolours are sketches by Ruskin recreating them in a ‘factual’ manner for his book ‘Modern Painters’. Ruskin’s purpose here was to contrast his factual accounts of landscapes in order to highlight Turner’s techniques of creating atmosphere in his art, for example how Turner painted cliffs higher to create a sense of fear in a viewer. On the back wall, Ruskin’s own ‘finished’ paintings are presented. Despite being bolder in colour and more precise in detail than Turner’s ‘finished’ works, they are clearly influenced by him, especially in their subject matter, as they similarly depict a range of fantastic landscapes and the powerful force of nature.
Walking around this room, I was able to clearly see the interconnection between the two artists as well as their creative differences. In the hall’s two adjacent rooms, Ruskin’s other influences are explored much more deeply, allowing for the exhibition to present Ruskin firmly as an individual, despite initially but importantly highlighting how Turner’s works shaped him and his world view.
Entering the room to the left-hand side of the hall, I was presented with sounds of nature and the chug of a train. Here, the exhibition foregrounds Ruskin’s preoccupation with the effects of industrialisation on nature, displaying drawings and studies of animals, weather and architecture, as well as works by a range of artists with similar focusses to Ruskin, with paintings of weather patterns by Turner, John Constable, Alexander Cozens, Thomas Lindsey, and Thomas Kerrick.
I was most notably drawn to Ruskin’s intricate, detailed sketches of Gothic architecture across Europe. His clear desire to record the beauty of historical buildings vulnerable to weathering and tourism made me think of the recent fire at Notre Dame and how quickly such glorious things can be destroyed. I felt a great sense of respect for Ruskin for his attempts to preserve the fragile beauty he saw in the world in the world around him, just as he admired Turner and other landscape artists for doing similarly.
Next, the exhibition explores the theme of spirituality in Ruskin’s art, especially in relation to his criticism of the onset of consumer culture and industrialisation which he viewed as a blasphemy against a pure God-given land which it destroyed. Again, other artists’ works were displayed to complement this theme, most excitingly Turner’s painting ‘The Story of Apollo and Daphne’ which depicts the tiny figures of the two Greek Gods set against a magnificent, arcadian landscape, sewing together the relationship between the godly and nature.
Furthering the exhibition’s exploration of Ruskin’s strong opposition to the rapidly industrialising Britain he was experiencing, was a wall briefly exploring his opinions on war, citing quotes from his speech to the Royal Military Academy in 1866 against war and its destructive capabilities.
His words are highlighted to be particularly influential to individuals and artists concerned with pacifism on the eve of the Second World War, especially art historian and public servant Kenneth Clark who commissioned artists to create work documenting vulnerable British landscapes for his ‘Recording Britain’ project. Some of these works are displayed in the exhibition.
A particular piece which drew my eye was a painting by John Piper of a cove named Stair Hole. At first, the painting appeared completely expressive and indecipherable as a landscape piece. However, the more I gazed into the canvas, the more I recognised that it was expressing nature in a way similar to Turner’s initial watercolours, capturing the powerful soul of nature and all its raw, pure beauty in its seemingly chaotic brushstrokes.
In the other side room, the exhibition brings its focus to the personal life of Ruskin, especially his deteriorating mental health which was touched on earlier in the exhibition, and his time living in Brantwood. A small closed off area plays a time-lapse of the landscapes Ruskin would have seen here, while diary entries and drawings show his detailed observations of nature and the consequences of tourism and pollution on these surroundings, as well as give insight to his troubled thoughts.
Finally, the exhibition presents works by Emma Stibbon which were commissioned specifically for this exhibition. Photos and prints interestingly mirror Ruskin’s own, showing the same places he stood 150 years ago at the Mer de Glace and Mont Blanc, visually highlighting the effects of climate change in those spots. Where there was once a thick sheet of snow, exposed valley floors and glacial debris are now left.
I left the exhibition with a well-rounded sense of Ruskin: his work, its influences, his lasting effect on others, and the relevance of his art and beliefs to today. Especially at a time like now when climate change is risking not just the beauty of this world but also our lives, an exhibition exploring Ruskin’s work and opinions is perfectly timed.
When Ruskin worked and raised his concerns about the world, the climate change we know and fear now was just beginning.
Since Ruskin, climate change has advanced to harmful levels, war has transformed to become frighteningly deadly, and much of the beauty he saw as sacred yet vulnerable has gone. This exhibition not only displays a range of fantastic works by a range of fantastic artists, but it explores the complex issues at their core, making this exhibition extremely interesting and fulfilling aesthetically, creatively and intellectually.