Ruskin Ready For a Revival, After the $120,000 Banana

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What would John Ruskin say? That’s the question I’m trying to process here in my studio in the backwoods of Maine, where I just discovered on the internet the front page of Friday’s New York Post. It boasts a photo of an artwork that consists of a banana attached to a wall with duct tape. It sold, the Post reports, for $120,000. And now the report is that some hungry maven pried the pricey banana loose and — no joke — ate it.

Hence the question about Ruskin.

Ruskin, after all, may be the greatest art critic in history, at least by my reckoning. Many may know of him from the movie “Mr. Turner,” about the British land- and sea-scape painter Joseph Mallord William Turner. The movie lampooned Ruskin mercilessly — and for no good reason (and didn’t do much for Turner’s image by focussing on his sex life too much). A show on Ruskin has just closed at the Yale Center for British Art.

It was a small show, but a gem of one. I drove down to see it the other day. Ruskin admired Turner even above the old masters and defended him in the elegant writing of “Modern Painters.” In the Yale show was a Turner painting of Venice, a city much in the news these days, in which the sheer poetry of light, air, water, space goes beyond what you would think possible in a painting.

Ruskin was also a great draftsman and watercolorist himself. The drawings of the Gothic cathedral of St. Lo, or the basilica of St. Mark’s in Venice will convince anyone of that. The watercolor painting of rocks in the pass at Killercrankie has such astonishing detail that Ruskin’s powers of perception must have been superhuman. You can see why Ruskin became a defender of the Pre-Raphaelites who fostered a reverence for God’s creation and the mandate to leave out or to add nothing.

It turns out that Ruskin loved the builders of Gothic cathedrals — and their handiwork. He promoted the revival of Gothic architecture to counter the destructive aftermath of the industrial revolution. Art could save the culture. He devoted himself to teaching, extending the power of art to enrich and uplift the lives of the working class.

Ruskin’s critique of the environmental and spiritual effects of industrialization in the 19th century is being reviewed as prefiguring the climatological concerns of our own time and our search for a post-carbon society. Say what you will about climate change. How many critics of art today have such vision and ambition?

Which brings me back to the blasted banana. It happens that Ruskin — who once likened the paintings of Whistler to “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face” — himself became profoundly unfashionable. Art moved through abstraction to conceptualism and now to self-parody. And suddenly, it seems, Ruskin is making a comeback.

If you have missed the Ruskin show, the Yale Center for British Art has many Turners and Constables that will renew your faith in the value of art. Down the road at the Mystic Seaport Museum, there is — until February 23 — a show of 97 Turner watercolors from all stages of his career. It’s on loan from Tate Britain. The show is “J. M. W. Turner: Watercolors from Tate,” and the catalogue is “Conversations with Turner: The Watercolors.”

The Turner Bequest left 30,000 works on paper, 300 oil paintings, and 280 sketchbooks to the British nation. From that treasure this show was selected. It is the only place it will be seen in America before going back to Britain. Turner and Ruskin set Olympic records for works produced in a lifetime. And no one has yet eaten one of their masterpieces.


Mr. Babb, whose studio is at Sumner, Maine, is a contributing editor of the Sun. Image: Study of Portal of Cathedral at St. Lo, by John Ruskin, from

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