CRIMINAL ABSURDITIES CONCERNING POLLUTION IN CATALOGUE THE TURNER/WHISTLER/MONET EXHIBIT AT TATE BRITAIN
This undoubtedly interesting exhibit is marred unfortunately by the nonsense to be found in parts of the catalogue, about pollution and Ruskin, which, ecologically speaking, seems to us little short of criminal.
These give an exaggerated role to pollution as a contributor to painterly impressionnistic effects They do not mention a form of pollution, whose effects were only discovered in the last 30 or 40 years or so, the artificial greenhouse effect, the most important form of pollution today, caused by the same causes as those more superficial forms of pollution which are considered in the exhibit (See the Friends of the Earth site on pollution and climate change, at http://www.foe.co.uk/campaigns/climate/, a link of the Ruskin Lancaster web, at http://www.lancs.ac.uk/depts/ruskin/contact.htm).
Ruskin’s thought on related questions is caricatured, and his contribution to this form of pollution is ignored.
The catalogue, or certain articles of the catalogue, can then go on and on, without any pangs of conscience, about the aesthetic contribution of the pollution of the Industrial Revolution, to Turner’s, Whistler’s and Monet’s work, and to impressionism and symbolism in general.
At the outset, it is strongly implied, in the opening article by Ms Katherine Lochnan, that the pollution of the Industrial Revolution is practically at the source of Turner’s later more original work.
Here are the first four paragraphs of this contibution. Judge for yourself.
“In 1846 the leading artist of the Britsh school JMW Turner, moved incognito to a house in Chelsea which commanded two of the finest reaches of the Thames in London. His name was closely linked to the river he observed at dawn, at dusk and on moonlit nights from a rowing boat or rooftop balcony. On the day he died, 19 december 1851, Turner was found prostrate on the bedroom floor, trying to get to the window to look at the river. Turner’s doctor reported how, just before 9am, the ‘sun broke through the cloudy curtain which so long had obscured its splendour, and filled the chamber of death with a glory of light.’Turner ‘died without a groan’.
The ‘cloudy curtain’ was pollution!! During Turner’s lifetime London had become the largest industrial city in the world. The Thames which inspired Arcadian views in his youth ...had become a giant sewer by the time of his death. As the sky was obscured by smog much of the time, the sun made infrequent appearences. Rodner has noted that ‘Shelley considered London’s opaque greyness the very manifesation of Hell in the guise of “a populous city and smoky city”’. Atmospheric pollution, however, brought with it sublime effects that excited Turner’s imagination and contributed to spectacular sunrises.
The response to environmental degradation brought about by the Industrial Revolution took different forms. Some decried the growing threat thrat to natural landscape and its picturesque quality by the spread of industry with its utilitazrain structures
Others sought beauty in modernity. The Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley believed that ‘poetry turns all things to loveliness ....it adds beauty to that whuch is most deformed (and) lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the wirld, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.’ Turner was dubbed the ‘Shelley of English painting.
During the 1820s, Turner’s work underwent a dramatic shift. While observing nature
closely, and continuing to work from nature, he began to give greater rein to his imagination
focusing on fugitive aspects and creating extraordinary atmospheric effects. His contemporaties were dumfouded and by the mid-1830s critics began to attack him, accusing himl of insanity. In 1843 the young John Ruskin came to his defense in the first volume of Modern Painters, claiming that Turner was the greatest artist who had ever lived and setting him up against Claude Lorrain. He promoted Turner’s later style over his early one, his watercolours over his oil paintings. He especially admired the Venetian and Swiss watercolours, considering the latter to be ‘the pinnacle of Turner’s achievement ”.
The following extract if from M William Ribner’s contribution, the second introductory article, entitled ‘The poetics of Pollution’.
“An extreme example is provided by Ruskin’s ‘Stormcloud of the Nineteenth Century’(1884). Deeply troubled by the ‘plague winds’ blowing into the lake country, Ruskin distinguished these ‘plague winds’ from fog - the former blanching the sun, while the latter reddened it. Ruskin maintained that Defilement of the fog was the wicked work of men.
Adopting a prophetic attitude, Ruskin associated the phenomenon with the blasphemy, iniquity and injustice of his nation. ‘Of states in such moral gloom every seer of old predicted the physical gloom.’
This passage seems less excentric when placed within the British tradition from which it sprang : the moralising discourse of Victorian sanitary reform...”
Any self-respecting ruskinian should see at a glance how much this short paragraph is a caricature of Ruskin’s thought.
2. THE EMPIRICAL BASIS OF RUSKIN’S STORMCLOUD HYPOTHESIS
In fact, Ruskin’s remarks were in great part based on empirical observation,
Ruskin had had a serious scientific formation, at Oxford.
He expressed his scientific interests very earky on.
His first publication appeared in 1834 in Loudon’s Magazine of Natural History, and was entitled entitled ‘ Enquiries on the causes of the colour of the Water of the Rhine’.
These enquiries, and others of Ruskin’s early writings, are entirely free of religious considerations.
The summit of Ruskin’s youthful ambition was to become President of the Geological Society.
In 1836 Ruskin was invited by the then owner of the Magazine of Natural History, Edward Chalesworth, to attend the meetings of the Geological Society, and was introduced by him to William Buckland and Charles Lyell, warring doyens of the English and Scottish schools of geology.
When Ruskin went up to Oxford in 1836, he saw a good deal of Buckland and his friends. Ruskin showed him his geological specimens from witzerland, and drew visual material for the doctor’s lectures. Buckland invited Ruskin to social gatherings, where he met many scientists, like Charles Darwin. ‘He and I got together’, wrote Ruskin, ‘and talked all the evening.’ (See The Ruskin Family Letters, ed. Van Akin Burd, vol. 2, p. 436.)
Through Buckland, Ruskin became absorbed into the orbit of the English school, and became known as one of the ‘party’.
Let the pastor of the Alps observe the variations of his mountain winds; let the solitary dweller of the American prairie observe the passsage of storms, and variations of the climate; and each, who alone would have been powerless, will find himself part of one mighty Mind, - a ray of light entering into one vast Eye, a member of a multitudinous Power, contributing to the knowledge, and aiding the efforts, which will be capable of solving the most deeply hidden problems of Nature, penetrating into the most occult causes, and reducing to principle and order the vast mulititude of beautiful and wonderful phenomenae, by which the wisdom and the benevolence of the Supreme Deity regulates the course of the times and seasons, robes the globe with verdure and fruitfulness, and adapts it to minister to the wants, and contribute to the felicity of the innumerable tribes of animated existence
In other words, all the meteorologists put together might see what Ruskin was soon to argue Turner had seen.
There was therefore a serious empirical basis to Ruskin’s observations. There is no doubt that the blast furnaces of Barrow and Millom, in Lancashire, polluted the air with soot and fog
There was, as well, an underlying religious and moral strata to Ruskin’s writings on the weather.
The changes in the weather had something to do with the actions of men, apart from their industrial activity.
But these actions were not exclusively of the kind looked disapprovingly upon by victorian prudishness.
At one moment, in the Fors version, R associates the stormcloud with the Franco-German campaign of 1870, ‘which’, he wrote, was especially horrible to me, in its digging, as the germans ought to have known, a moat flooded with waters of death between the two nations for a century to come.’
It so happens that his supposition/hypothesis that there was a change in the weather due to the industrial activity of man has been confirmed within the last 40 yeras or so.
This is the artificial greenhouse effect.
3. NONSENSE ON TURNER’S TOTAL ENDORSEMENT OF THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION AND ON INDUSTRIAL POLLUTION
Another preposterous insinuation of Ms Lochan’s inroductory paragraphs seems to us to be that Turner was an unconditional endorser and admirer of the Industrial Revolution.
As we saw earlier on, she writes, p. 15 :
‘The response to environmental degradation brought about by the Industrial Revolution took different forms. Some decried the growing threat to natural landscape and its picturesque quality by the spread of industry with its utilitarain structures
Others sought beauty in modernity. The Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley believed that ‘poetry turns all things to loveliness ....it adds beauty to that whuch is most deformed (and) lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.’ Turner was dubbed the ‘Shelley of English painting.’
Ms Lochnan poses as an evidence that there are only two possible attitudes to the IR : wholesale endorsement or total rejection.
She has implicitly put Turner in the first group, with her second par.
(More to follow).