One of the great pleasures of reading (or, perhaps, and hopefully) rereading the second volume of Ruskin’s Modern Painters (1846), is to re-encounter his analysis of the Imagination and the vital role it plays in creating and sustaining human life. If the goal of the first volume of Modern Painters (1843), the ebullient pages that first introduced his genius to the discerning readers of the world, was to argue that the then-living landscape painter, J, M. W. Turner, was the greatest artist to have set brush to canvas since the acknowledged masters of the Renaissance, a primary goal of the second volume was to explicate why and how Turner had attained his greatness, to elucidate the qualities he possessed in such abundance that no other artist could even so much as approach his mastery, While other artists often were blessed with considerable talent, none combined that talent with a depth of vision that reached into the core and depths of life itself, and, because of this limitation, were incapable of rendering the visions which, properly understood by their viewers, presented the essential truth of their subjects for all time.
Principal among these qualities that Turner possessed, Ruskin says, was Imagination. And so, it comes as no surprise to the reader of the second volume of Modern Painters, that its author devotes the first four chapters of the third part of that still wonderful and deeply rewarding text to an elucidation of the chief traits of that quality, an ability which, Ruskin argues is, finally and eternally, the highest that human beings possess–and, in typical Ruskin-fashion, does so in paragraphs both captivating and, to most readers, revelatory, as insightful today as they were when first read more than 180 years ago.
And so (to coin a deep phrase!), it occurred to me, on rereading these passages on the Imagination not so long ago, that readers of this blog might find them helpful in their modern moments. And so (to use that deep phrase again!), it is my plan in this Post and the two following, to share with you the essence of his “Theory of the Imagination,” a quality which he argues has three distinctive elements (he being, to my knowledge, the first to so suggest and explicate): Associative, Penetrative, and Contemplative.
So, then (!!) first: the Imagination Associative (what follows is necessarily abstract, but will reward, as does all of Ruskin, the patient and attentive):
We find that Imagination has three totally distinct functions. It combines, and by combination, creates new forms–but the secret principle of this combination has not yet been shown by the analysts. Again: it treats or regards both simple images and its own combinations in peculiar ways;, and, thirdly, it penetrates, analyzes, and reaches truths by no other faculty discernible…
It has been said that, in composition, the mind can only take cognizance of likeness of similarity, or of abstract beauty among the ideas it brings together. But neither likeness nor dissimilarity secures harmony. We saw in our earlier chapter on Unity, that likeness destroys harmony or unity of membership; and that difference did not necessarily secure it, but only that particular imperfection in each of the harmonizing parts which can only be supplied by its fellow parts. If therefore, the combination made is to be harmonious, the artist must induce in each of its component parts (suppose two only, for simplicity’s sake) such imperfection as that the other shall put it right. If one of them be perfect by itself, the other will be an excresense. Both must be faulty when separate and each corrected by the presence of the other. If he can accomplish this, the result will be beautiful; it will be a whole, an organized body with dependent members, and he is an inventor. If not, let his separate features be as apposite or as resemblant as they may be, they form no whole. They are but two members glued together, and he is only a carpenter and a joiner.
Now, the conceivable imperfections of any single feature are infinite. It is impossible, therefore, to fix upon a form of imperfection in the one, and try with all forms of imperfection of the other until one fits; the two imperfections must be co-relatively and simultaneously conceived.
This is imagination, properly so-called–imagination associative, the grandest mechanical party power that the human intelligence processes, and one which will appear more and more marvelous the longer we consider it. By its operation, two ideas are chosen out of an infinite mass (for it evidently matters not whether the imperfections be conceived out of the infinite number conceivable, or selected out of a number recollected) two ideas which are separately wrong which together shall be right and of whose unity, therefore, the idea must be formed at the instant they are seized, as it is only in that unity that either are good, and therefore only the conception of that unity can prompt the preference. Now, what is that prophetic action of mind, which, out of an infinite mass of things that cannot be tried together, seizes, at the same instance, two that are fit for each other, together right yet each disagreeable when alone?…
This operation would be wonderful enough, if it were concerned with two ideas only. But a powerfully imaginative mind seizes and combines at the same time all the important ideas of its poem or picture; and while it works with any one of them, it is, at the same instant, working with and modifying all the others in their relations never losing sight of their bearing on each other, as the motion of the snake’s body goes through all parts at once, and its volition acts in coils that go in contrary ways.
This faculty is indeed something that looks as if man were made after the image of God; it is inconceivable, admirable, altogether divine. And yet, as wonderful as it may seem, it is palpably evident that no less an operation is necessary for the production of any great work–for, by the definition of Unity of Membership (the essential characteristic of greatness), not only certain couples or groups of parts but all the parts of annulment work must be separately imperfect; each must imply and ask for all the rest; and the glory of every one of them must consist in its relation to the rest; while so much as one is wanting none can be right…
The final test, therefore, of the work of associative Imagination are: its intense simplicity, its perfect harmony, and its absolute truth. It may be a harmony majestic and humble, abrupt or prolonged, but always governed and perfectly whole; evidencing in all its relations the weight, prevalence, and universal dominion of an awful, inexplicable Power; a chastising, animating, and disposing Mind…
All well and good this, but, as I mentioned above, not an easy argument to follow, particularly without illustrations. Knowing this, throughout his chapter, Ruskin eases the way for his readers by alluding to various paintings by various artists, either praising or faulting their renditions for their procession or lack of associative imagination. It is not until we come to the end of the chapter that we get a pair of more detailed illustrations of the case he wants to make, both deeply fueled by his love of Nature. The first is of Titian’s famous “St. Jerome in Penitence” (1575), now in the Nuevos Museos in the El Escorial in Madrid. Here is what he had to say about it: “As instance, the landscape depicted in Titian’s ‘St. Jerome,’ may, for all I know, be a pure transcript of a rocky slope covered with chestnuts among his native mountains [in Italy]. It has all the look of a sketch from nature; if it be not, the imagination developed in it is of the highest order; if it be, the imagination has only acted in the suggestion of the dark sky and the shape of the flakes of solemn cloud and gleam of russet light along the distant ground.”
The second illustration comes from his beloved Turner, specifically from one of Turner’s incomparable collection of sketches, “The Liber Studiorum.” It’s title is “AEsacus and Hesperie.” Of it, our author writes: “It is impossible to tell whether the nearest trunks in this sketch, especially the large one on the right with the ivy, have been invented, or taken straight from Nature. They have all the look of accurate portraiture. I can hardly imagine anything so perfect to have been obtained except from the real thing. But we know that the imagination must have begun to operate somewhere, although we cannot tell where, since the multitudinous harmonies of the rest of the picture could hardly in any real sense have continued to be so inviolately sweet.” (It is probably worth noting that, reproductions in books on art then still in their infancy, few readers would have seen these pictures in the original.)But probably the best illustration this series of posts has produced of the Imagination Associative is in its reproduction of Turner’s astonishing oil painting, “The Slave Ship,” (a painting Ruskin owned for a time) and his almost reverential analysis of it. To view that image and read that description (which appeared in the first volume of Modern Painters, see: Post 37:, “Mr. Turner.” (scroll to the end of that Post for these aspects.) It was descriptions like these that ignited the widespread enthusiasm for Ruskin’s work and initiated the process of turning him into a “household name” in the England of his day, descriptions which would soon lead writers and thinkers as astute as Charlotte Bronte to remark that “Ruskin taught me to see!”
Until next time when we will consider “The Imagination Penetrative” please do continue well out there!.