I have heard traditionalists accuse Mr. Ruskin's essay on “Truth” of laying the seeds of modernism. I have similarly heard modernists claim inspiration from the same. However, whereas early modernists such as Adolf Loos viewed all ornamentation as a deceit and craft as criminal and degenerate for an “evolved” man of the 20th century, Ruskin only criticized craft and ornament that was poorly conceived or intended to deceive. A fierce defender of art and craft's intrinsic role in uplifting the human spirit, Ruskin's perspective on “truth in architecture” could not be more diametrically opposed to the modernist movement to come.
Mr. Ruskin begins by opening a window into human nature, specifically regarding our tendency to quickly recognize and reject overtly malicious deceits:
“We are too much in the habit of looking at falsehood in its darkest associations...That indignation which we profess to feel at deceit absolute, is indeed only at deceit malicious. We resent calumny, hypocrisy, and treachery because they harm us, not because they are untrue.”
Subsequently, the deceits we too easily tolerate:
“But it is the glistening and softly spoken lie; the amiable fantasy; the patriotic lie of the historian, the provident lie of the politician; the zealous lie of the partizan, the merciful lie of the friend, and the careless lie of each man to himself, that cast that black mystery over humanity.”
Is such moralistic reasoning just a product of 19th century Protestant England misapplied to architecture, art and craft? An extreme purism that would stifle any expression of beauty and inventiveness? Is the entirety of painting and sculpture nothing more that an endeavor to deceive? As Ruskin's reasoning unfolds such perceptions are quickly dispelled.
Ruskin makes a clear distinction between artistic deception and imagination, “...as spiritual creatures, we should be able to invent and behold what is not.” Yet at the same time he cautions, “...as moral creatures, we should know and confess at the same time that it is not.”
In other words, so long as the work of art is understood as such and never implied nor believed to exist, no attempt to deceive has occurred. To the contrary, Ruskin viewed honest art as “a statement of certain facts, in the clearest possible way” and as a “communicated act of imagination.” However, Ruskin felt that the architecture and craft were particularly vulnerable to deceits respecting the nature of materials or the quantity of work.
|Spalled Terra Cotta|
Surface Truth. Those romantic French and Italians! They must at first seem like easy targets for Ruskin with their frescoed walls, their Trompe-l'œil (fool the eye), faux bois and marbre (fake wood and marble). However, Ruskin hardly provides a universal condemnation. Rather, he admonishes us to “be careful to observe that the evil of them consists always in definitely attempted deception.” Ruskin goes on to contrast two architecturally similar examples.
First the ceiling of Milan Cathedral. The vaults are covered with what from the ground appear to be stone fan traceries. Upon a more careful examination it can be perceived that the traceries are merely painted on, lacking the depth and shadow of stone. This Ruskin felt destroys much of the dignity of an otherwise beautiful building. You find yourself wondering, what else here is fake?
|Ceiling, Milan Cathedral|
Next Ruskin praises the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But why the change? Is not the ceiling full of architectural ornament in grisaille mingled with the figures of its frescoes? Yet there is no deception. There is never even a moment when one would question if it is really God Almighty touching the hand of a material Adam. And if the figures are painted then it follows the architectural elements must be as well. Ruskin rightly observes that “so great a painter as Micheal Angelo would never paint badly (or perfectly) enough to deceive.”
|Michael Angelo, Sistine Chapel|
|Courtesy of Palladio Mouldings|
Over the next few post I'll endeavor to highlight each of the “Lamps” or virtues espoused by Mr. Ruskin. Next to consider: The Lamp of Power
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Contributed by Patrick Webb