“WE NEVER SEE ANYTHING CLEARLY”: Notes on John Ruskin’s Modern Painters by Peter Valente

Criticism: Peter Valente


It is autumn and there is a chill in the air. As I write, there are major exhibits of J.M.W Turner’s work in Boston and Texas, and that brings to mind the work of John Ruskin, the writer who knew very early the importance of Turner’s paintings. As I think of Ruskin’s work, and his defense of Turner in his multi-volume book, Modern Painters, I look out of my window, and see the leaves have turned from green to a brownish-red color; the breezes are scattering them across the yard. I see a wide lawn before me and the shape of the tall trees in the distance that reflect the light that gives them a golden hue at dawn. The complex sounds of the birdsong have become rarer now as winter approaches. I am thinking of how the ocean waves that crash against the shore continually change their shape; none is similar to another; their movement does not function like a piece of machinery with a constant rhythm. They are irregular, imperfect. Nature is neither silent nor static. In The Stones of Venice, John Ruskin writes:

Nothing that lives is, or can be, rigidly perfect; part of it is decaying, part nascent. The foxglove blossom, – a third part bud, a third part past, a third part in full bloom, – is a type of the life of this world. And in all things that live there are certain irregularities and deficiencies which are not only signs of life, but sources of beauty. All admit irregularity as they imply change.

Every painting from nature is flawed if it approaches the natural scene and attempts, like a photograph, to capture it exactly. There is no perfection in the world. Everything is imperfect. In The Stones of Venice, Ruskin writes, “But, accurately speaking, no good work whatever can be perfect, and the demand for perfection is always a sign of a misunderstanding of the ends of art.” This is because nothing can be seen clearly seen, only suggested.

For Ruskin, the painting of a flower, however precise the rendition, is deficient with respect to the actual flower as it exists in nature. Nature will not reveal all its secrets. For him, painting required seeing into the truth[1] of nature. If one, for example, confronted a sky that was blue and said that it was green, this would constitute a false vision; but the blue of the sky remains unaffected; no matter the subjective perception, the truth of nature remains unchanged. In this way, Ruskin gave a primacy to the real in the natural world. He began his study of art, not by looking at reproductions in books, but by directly observing the natural landscapes before him. A painter must see accurately; in this way he paints the truth of an image. But “accurate” does not mean a faithful imitation. For Ruskin this was the mistake that young painters made. In Turner, Ruskin found a painter opposed to imitation in painting, and who sought to go beyond the materiality of nature, to express the light at the origin of things. For Ruskin, Turner’s paintings represented a truth about nature, but not in how “real” the painting appeared to one’s common view of nature. So then, for Ruskin, what is its truth, how can it be a true form of seeing? In fact, a Turner painting approaches the condition of “unreality.”

He is not painting merely what exists, what experience and custom has taught him, but what he actually sees. The immateriality of Turner’s paintings does not mean that he does not paint the truth; he is concerned with light and shade, the essence of the real; he retains the darkness and the luminosity of an object, however immaterial it appears on the canvas. As if to say that if one would truly see the natural world, one would realize that it is fundamentally a play of light and darkness, irrespective of the material weight of objects.

Why paint from nature, if one attempted to mimic nature? A painting of a rose cannot compete with a real rose. Turner’s paintings are suggestive by pointing to the mysteries that lie beyond the painted image; what can only be realized if we strip away the weight of the material, the illusion of it, and penetrate to the center, to an original, metaphysical Light; this is the spirituality of Turner; his paintings approach the condition of the origin of the world, before the cosmic egg cracked and unleashed duality upon the world. His paintings ultimately represent a harmonious, unified picture of the natural world as seen from the viewpoint of Heaven, i.e. the Infinite, filtered, of course, through the human, and thus necessarily imperfect. Furthermore, in Modern Painters, Ruskin writes about this infinite universe and man’s relation to it: “This infinite universe is unfathomable, inconceivable, in its whole; every human creature must slowly spell out, and long contemplate, such part of it as may be possible for him to reach;…extricating it from infinity, as one gathers a violet out of grass.”

The whole truth of a Turner painting is not contained in the parts but in the unity when they are seen from a distance, and where the confusion and chaos then disappear. In this, there is the mystery of Turner’s line. In Modern Painters, Ruskin writes: “Turner, and Turner only, would rather follow and render on the canvas that mystery of decided line, that distinct, sharp, visible, but unintelligible and inextricable richness, which, examined part by part, is to the eye nothing but confusion and defeat, which, taken as a whole, is all unity, symmetry, and truth.” In a Turner painting the foreground is collapsed and the scene is often viewed from a distance, sometimes a great distance; this is why objects often appear “indistinct,” and as if enveloped in mist. Only the gradations of light remain. Ruskin, in Modern Painters, writes, “If you watch any object as it fades in distance, it will lose gradually its force, its intelligibility, its anatomy, its whole comprehensible being; but it will never lose its gradation of light.” This light is the truth of the nature of things.

Turner does not violate nature in his paintings but preserves the mystery of the natural world: its fundamental unknowability. We find in our present world that physics have come to the same conclusion about the unknown as a fundamental aspect of the material world. If we consider the subatomic realm, we know that uncertainty plays a fundamental part: if we know the position of a subatomic particle we cannot know its velocity at the same time. A fundamental unknown is built into the process not by man but by nature. Furthermore, though quantum mechanics is a system that works in describing the subatomic world, physicists do not know why it works; it is a mysterious world that defies manmade laws. Not even the sophisticated tools of physicists can penetrate the source of nature’s mysteries or bring to light what nature wants to keep hidden. Their tools, like a camera, are insufficient, for reproducing nature.

In volume IV of Modern Painters, Ruskin poses the question “Why is it that a photograph always looks clear and sharp,—not at all like a Turner?”; he will go on to suggest that photographs might be closer to a Turner painting than he and other critics might first have thought. The reason for this is that photographs, before the digital era, never appeared entirely clear and in this they resembled a Turner painting. For Ruskin, clarity is an inherent fault in the photographic process since must uses artificial light to bring out the form of the object being photographed. Therefore, the photograph is unnatural. The subtleties of natural lighting is lost, those “gradations of light” so important for Turner, where an object is never exactly clear. Ruskin writes:

Photographs never look entirely sharp; but because clearness is supposed a merit in them, they are usually taken from very clearly marked and un-Turnerian subjects; and such results as are misty and faint, though often precisely those which contain the most subtle renderings of nature, are thrown away, and the clear ones only are preserved. Those clear ones depend for much of their force on the faults of the process. Photography either exaggerates shadows, or loses detail in the lights … and misses certain of the utmost subtleties of natural effect (which are often the things that Turner has chiefly aimed at,) while it renders subtleties of form which no human could achieve. But a delicately taken photograph of a truly Turnerian subject is far more like Turner in the drawing than it is to the work of any other artist … 

While in Venice, working on what would become the three volumes of The Stones of Venice, Ruskin took many photographs (early daguerreotypes) of the various churches and cathedrals. So for him the camera had a specific, utilitarian purpose in capturing as clear an image of a church so that he could study the details. Of course this was useful to Ruskin with regard to buildings and cathedrals, solid structures. But Ruskin believed, with respect to nature painting, that drawing natural objects with a pencil on paper, as Turner often did, was preferable to taking a photograph and working from its reproduced image. This was because he realized that the mechanical device of the camera always desired a “perfect” and thus a false image. It was a flaw in the mechanics: what the camera reproduced was not true with regard to nature because it “exaggerates shadows, or loses detail in the lights.” But Ruskin realizes that a “delicately taken photograph of a truly Turnerian subject is far more like Turner in the drawing that it is to a work of any other artist.” This is because Turner is not concerned with imitation.

These “unclear” images from the camera were the ones that were generally not considered or thrown away; these “Turnerian” effects were considered errors. Ruskin is aware of the problematic nature of the photographic image. Like a painter who attempts to realistically depict an image, the photographic image the camera produces is flawed. But this imperfect image is, for Ruskin, the representation of a truth. Photographs that are imperfect have an element of surprise. And these imperfect effects of blurring or mistiness contained in the photograph, and inherent to the camera, ultimately produced a Turnerian image. In its search for the perfect image, which a digital camera can seemingly produce, all imperfection, which for Ruskin was a sign of the spiritual nature in man, disappears. It is much the same thing with High-Definition videos. What do the processes of bloom and decay in the natural world have to do with an image that is photoshopped and clear? One might ask if such an image has become preferable to the actual? Has the simulation replaced the real? I will return to this subject later in this essay. 

For Ruskin, the imperfection of the photographic image of nature was in keeping with what he conceived of as a universal law which he also applied to his study of Gothic architecture; he attributed the fall of the arts to when perfection (clarity) dominated the mind of the artist. This pursuit of perfection leads to static forms rather than malleable and imperfect forms. The distance between one and the other is the distance between a light bulb and the rays of the sun. He writes In The Stones of Venice:

Accept this then for a universal law, that neither architecture nor any other noble work of man can be good unless it is imperfect; and let us be prepared for the otherwise strange fact, which we shall discern clearly as we approach the period of the Renaissance, that the first cause of the fall of the arts of Europe was a relentless requirement of perfection, incapable alike either of being silenced by veneration for greatness, or softened into forgiveness of simplicity.

Ruskin writes about the improvisational work of the laborers created ornaments on the Gothic buildings: “So that, in the best of times of Gothic, a useless window would rather have been opened in an unexpected place for the sake of the surprise, than a useful one forbidden for the sake of symmetry.” There laborers did not derive their knowledge from art books, nor were they studied in the finer aspects of European art. From the point of view of “civilized peoples,” they were savages. Ruskin suggests that the word “Goth” was initially a form of contempt. But in the best Gothic cathedrals, their kind of savage intensity had a spiritual basis in the disciplined Christian faith. What Ruskin values in these Gothic buildings is the imperfection of the architecture. But, as I have suggested, imperfection is not the same as false seeing. These laborers had nature on their mind, the rough and wild landscapes of the North, when designing ornaments, not ideas of perfect symmetry. Thus like the blurs and scratches in a photo, this imperfection was the result of the work of these laborers; in this way, like Turner, they produced a kind of spiritual light that is not transparent but imperfect as against the attempts to create imitative, perfect art; the Renaissance, with its scientific ideas of accurate perspective and symmetry, all but destroyed this view of art. For the laborers, it was a respect for the invisible mysteries and because of their Christian faith, that they created an intensely spiritual art. For Ruskin, the power of these “savage” artists was that their architecture was not modeled on finite designs but rather on the imperfect forms seen in the natural world. Ruskin, in Modern Painters, writes about the art of these men that it “neither comprehended or ruled itself, but worked and wandered as it listed, like mountain streams and winds; and which could not rest in the expression or seizure of finite form…It’s imagery was taken from the shadows of the storms and hills, and had fellowship with the night and day of the earth itself.” These laborers respected the mysteries of the world, and knew what they could represent in nature and what they couldn’t represent (the infinite.) For Ruskin, “there is a continual mystery caused throughout all spaces [in a Turner painting], caused by the absolute infinity of things. WE NEVER SEE ANYTHING CLEARLY.” The Infinite cannot be seen clearly, or represented, only suggested. They were men who knew their work was being done in the service of something higher. The savage wildness, and spiritual intensity of these laborers is not compatible with a mind obsessed with perfection in things. 

In our largely secular world, perfection seems the ultimate goal of all media. Digital space is immaterial and pure, but behind that there is nothing; time in the digital world is theoretically infinite but it is a false infinity without any relation to the spiritual. Our sense of time and space is completely destabilized with the creation of a seamless digital world where there is no loss, no time wasted, no decay, and thus, against nature and illusory. Reality itself has changed into something else. Consciousness has altered in the digital age. We have become less aware of our surroundings, less conscious of the people we encounter, less conscious of nature. The natural world has all but disappeared. In fact nothing is natural in the simulated world of the digital. The digital world ends up being an extreme version of the possibilities in the real world, particularly the ones related to power. After all, virtual love (or virtual sex) will always remain virtual unless it leaves that space (which is hard to do now) and though virtual manipulation may remain subliminal, that does not make it any less real.

Ruskin speaking of the industrialization of his own time, mentions the creation of factories, railroads that plowed through untouched nature, the increasing poverty and poor living conditions of the laborers, and a society that was becoming increasingly secular, where “human work has accordingly hardly any reference to spiritual beings, but is either done from a patriotic or personal interest, – either to benefit mankind, or reach some selfish end, not (I speak of human work in the broad sense) to please the gods.” Because, at least since Descarte’s famous cogito ergo sum, in which the thinking mind became isolated from the object before it, there was a tendency for man to dominate nature, in an attempt to make nature more perfect than it is. The digital world has all but erased nature. But Nature will not be altered nor reveal all of its secrets.

At this moment, sitting at my desk, I look out the same window, and see a shadow cast onto the lawn, now partly green and partly brownish-yellow. Winter is approaching. The tall trees in the distance are, as before, indistinct in their specific features, but outlined sharply against a blue sky with streaks of white clouds. The air is cool, 57 degrees. It is 12:19 p.m. I’m thinking of Ruskin’s phrase, quoted above, WE NEVER SEE ANYTHING CLEARLY, and that it is a key to his thought: every attempt by science, to explain, analyze, categorize, philosophize, conduct experiments on objects or phenomena, all this, eventually comes up against a blank wall; there is always something that eludes their grasp, something that they cannot see. There is no perfect experiment that will explain everything in the universe. Physicists have not solved the essential problem of Gravity, and so no Unified Law of Physics exists. Randomness is a better guess to explain the world than any regularity of patterns. So as hard as we look we can’t see clearly the entire picture. Some things can exist and be seen; others cannot and any attempt to represent them will lead to failure. Call what cannot be seen heaven, the invisible or the infinite or finally, God, but language falls short of any satisfactory word. We literally can’t know. It is like an eternal blind spot on the mind; the one piece, without which the puzzle cannot be explained, cannot be found, because it does not exist or, rather, this lack of existence is its very nature; it exists by not existing.

It was a problem for Ruskin that painters were focused on what existed instead of attempting to see what is in front of them. For Ruskin, attempting to represent the truth did not so much involve thinking, or an intellectual exercise, but seeing. Ruskin complains that “painters, to the last hour of their lives, are apt to fall in some degree into the error of painting what exists, rather than what they can see.” To attempt this kind of imitation of what exists, was for Ruskin, a kind of trickery. For Turner, painting the immateriality of light and shadow was one way of expressing or suggesting the ineffable. That which cannot be thought can nevertheless be represented in a painting, but not clearly. That is why in Turner’s paintings mist seems to envelop the natural world. This mist exists between ourselves and the infinite. But from this unknowing is born desire. It is from the intensity of desire that we sense intimations of something greater than ourselves, and that we are ultimately in service to something higher, that we can feel but not see clearly. But that does not mean it is any less real.

Peter Valente is a writer, translator, and filmmaker. He is the author of eleven full length books. Forthcoming is a collection of essays, Essays on the Peripheries (Punctum, 2021), and his translation of Nicolas Pages by Guillaume Dustan (Semiotext(e), 2022). He’s presently working on editing a book on Harry Smith.

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[1] Ruskin used the word “truth” in two ways: he distinguished between the essence of a thing when talking about the materiality of it and the aspect of something which, for Turner, had more to do with the immateriality of objects in nature. In this essay, truth is used to signify this latter sense of the word.