John Ruskin, Giotto, and William Henry Fox Talbot

This post continues my Story Structure series.

Scenes from the Life of Christ: 10. Entry into Jerusalem (1304-6) by Giotto

chris10 (Click pictures to enlarge)

For those readers who are puzzled why I’ve posted so many entries about old art but implied they’re relevant to new stories — and to screenplays — I offer the following quote from the great Victorian era critic, John Ruskin.

(excerpt from)
Giotto and his Works in Padua


John Ruskin

But what, it may be said by the reader, is the use of the works of Giotto to us? They may indeed have been wonderful for their time, and of infinite use in that time; but since, after Giotto, came Leonardo and Correggio, what is the use of going back to the ruder art, and republishing it in the year 1854? Why should we fret ourselves to dig down to the root of the tree, when we may at once enjoy its fruit and foliage? I answer, first, that in all matters relating to human intellect, it is a great thing to have hold of the root: that at least we ought to see it, and taste it; and handle it; for it often happens that the root is wholesome when the leaves, however fair, are useless and poisonous. In nine cases out of ten, the first expression of an idea is the most valuable: the idea may afterwards be polished and softened, and made more attractive to the general eye; but the first expression of it has a freshness and a brightness, like the flash of a native crystal compared to the lustre of glass that has been melted and cut. And in the second place, we ought to measure the value of art less by its executive than by its moral power. Giotto was not indeed one of the most accomplished painters, but he was one of the greatest men who ever lived. He was the first master of his time, in architecture as well as in painting; he was the friend of Dante, and the undisputed interpreter of religious truth, by means of painting, over the whole of Italy. The works of such a man may not be the best to set before children in order to teach them drawing; but they assuredly should be studied with the greatest care by all who are interested in the human mind.

I find this more, not less, interesting for the fact that it goes in several directions at once.

It’s the distance we get by looking 150 years later (from us) at Ruskin’s attempt to look at Giotto from his distance of 500 years later (from him).

(One gets a similar eerie feeling of double-exposure from the Smithsonian’s exhibit recreating the “Centennial Exhibition of 1876” whose theme was to assess the progress the US had made in the 100 years since its founding in 1776.)

Critical fashions change. I’m not much of a historian of art history, but I believe the following are true: Leonardo is supposed to have said, “After Giotto, painting declined.” Whatever the Victorians may have felt, nowadays Giotto’s position is again in the very front rank. Raphael, although still in the very front rank, is no longer idolized to the extent he was in Victorian times.

Also, although Ruskin argues valiantly that his contemporaries should recognize Giotto’s historic and human value, he appears to acquiesce to the idea that Giotto’s artistic value is obsolete. (Or am I over-reacting and Ruskin is referring only to Giotto’s technical value?)

I know what my private opinion is: Giotto makes me jump out of my skin. In Ruskin’s words, Giotto “was one of the greatest men who ever lived.”

But I don’t find that in history books: I find it in Giotto’s paintings.

It’s not clear to me whether Ruskin feels that progress overtakes all artists — or whether Giotto’s fate was particular, just due to his weakness in execution.

The question we have to ask Ruskin — and ourselves — is whether, if we believe in “progress” we’re therefore comfortable with the idea that our own art can and will become obsolete too, of historic value only.

Ruskin championed the art of J.M.W. Turner. Is he OK with the fact that Turner, although still regarded very highly today, has been eclipsed (for believers in progress) by later artists?

Otherwise, though, I’m thrilled with Ruskin’s statement that “we ought to measure the value of art less by its executive than by its moral power.”

I also love his comments leading up to “the first expression of it has a freshness and a brightness, like the flash of a native crystal compared to the lustre of glass that has been melted and cut.”

I wonder how aware Ruskin was that at about the time he was writing, people were exploring a completely new art medium: photography.

William Henry Fox Talbot was among the inventors of photography. In late September of 1840, he invented the process of shooting a negative and then printing it as a positive.

Lace (c. 1844) by William Henry Fox Talbot

(Click photos to enlarge)

Courtyard Scene (c. 1844) by William Henry Fox Talbot


Ships at Low Tide (c. 1844) by William Henry Fox Talbot


Aside from my sheer admiration at the beauty of some of his work, Fox Talbot leaves me with nothing but questions.

Fox Talbot’s photographs have precisely that quality of freshness that Ruskin mentions. Nowadays we’re jaded — we rack our brains to contrive something new. But when Fox Talbot worked, almost nothing had ever been “done before.” Everything in the world — a piece of lace, for example — was fresh to him, and he could respond to it as it was without worrying whether it was “original.”

It’s the same as the freshness of the early filmmakers. In L’Arrivée d’un Train à la Ciotat (1895), the Lumière brothers thought they could thrill people with nothing but footage of a scheduled train arriving at a station. Later, in Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902), Méliès used outrageously silly plot and silly FX — but he has a belief in his ability to entertain, and an imaginative profusion that make his film still beautiful today.

Primarily, what gives a work “moral power” is the artist’s integrity and his belief in it.

What hits me so hard about Fox Talbot’s work is the combination of how fresh it is to him and how other-worldly antique it is to me — coupled with his fine sense of beauty.

I wonder whether he thought of his work as “art?”

Obviously, his technical limitations are severe. Still, he works within those limitations to create art that’s successful on its own terms. Isn’t this the essence of it: using your given medium to create?

For further posts in this series, see my Story Structure page.

Another post concerning Giotto’s Padua work:
Two Frescoes, by Giotto and by Taddeo Gaddi

More quotes from John Ruskin:
John Ruskin: “You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him”

John Ruskin: “the Great Spirit of nature is as deep and unapproachable in the lowest as in the noblest objects”

This entry was posted in Photography, Screenwriting, The arts, Visual arts, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to John Ruskin, Giotto, and William Henry Fox Talbot

  1. Giotto was a great painter, he was a great influence on leonardo Da Vinci.
    A hug.

  2. williampcoleman says:

    Thanks for your comment.

    In fact. I think Leonardo said, “after Giotto, painting declined.” He may have merely meant that the painters immediately following Giotto were not as good — but I’ve always felt he meant that Giotto set such a high standard, he was almost impossible to follow.

    You have some very nice artwork on your site. I hope people will click your link and visit you.

    — Bill

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