A NEW exhibition at the Millennium Gallery is called Force of Nature: Picturing Ruskin’s Landscape, a play on words which both encompasses the preoccupation of Victorian critic and scholar John Ruskin and also the power and influence he generated.
“It’s not an exhibition about Ruskin, but around him,” says curator Louise Pullen. It takes his ideas as a starting point to explore how artists represent the world around them.
With both historical and contemporary work, Force of Nature uses the evolution of Ruskin’s ideas as a basis to show how artists have adopted different approaches to portraying the landscape.
For Ruskin, depiction of the landscape in art was an ongoing preoccupation throughout his life (1819-1900). While his belief that artists had a duty to reflect and record their environment never ceased, his view on how this was best achieved was to go through a radical shift in later life. Force of Nature comprises three sections, each taking inspiration from the developments in Ruskin’s thinking.
The Mountain in Miniature reflects the genesis of Ruskin’s ideas, observing how small geological forms had the same essential structure as mountains.
“He believed you needed to understand all the small details before attempting to capture the broader landscape,” says Pullen.
Pointing to Turner’s High Force, fall of the Tees, she said that Ruskin considered that it was such a perfect representation of rocks around a waterfall it could be used as a geological diagram. Ruskin’s approach is almost scientific.
This is at the heart of the second section, Seeing the Landscape, illustrating Ruskin’s initial belief in realistic, visually accurate representation.
Examples range from Pre-Raphaelite John Brett’s painstaking Mount Etna from Taormina to Dan Holdsworth’s 2006 photographic work, Andoya, a richly colourful time-lapse view of a Norwegian snowscape.
Victorian artists’ propensity to present the landscape with a kind of purity was very much of its time. Co-curator Rowena Hamilton observes: “There was the potential then to go somewhere untouched by humans whereas for contemporary artists now the notion of a wilderness is a bit of a fiction.”
Finally, Sensing the Landscape looks at how Turner prompted Ruskin to revise his opinions and explores the importance of conveying our emotional response to the landscape.
His painting, The Devil’s Bridge St Gothard, was “a kind of epiphany for Ruskin” according to Pullen because he realised that the artist could impose his own personality on what he was seeing and feeling as he was standing there.
Prominent in this section is Kathy Prendergast’s Land, an installation which is at once a tent, a map and mountain. Nearby is another work central to the show, Sunset on the Alps by George Frederic Watts, and Turner’s Landscape with Water .
Both were done from memory and sketchbooks and in Turner’s case the opposite of his waterfall painting at the beginning of the exhibition.
“Ruskin’s understanding of landscape has been changed through one artist,” says Pullen.
The works in Force of Nature are largely drawn from Sheffield’s own collections, complemented by a series of significant national loans from collections including those of Tate, the V&A and the Arts Council.
Other pieces include William Holman Hunt’s The Sphinx, Giza, Looking Towards the Pyramids of Saqqara (1856) and Llyn-y-Cau, Cader Idris (c1774) by Richard Wilson, as well as examples of Ruskin’s own topographical studies.
Contemporary responses to landscape, include Julian Opie’s Jet Stream, a bright and sunny animation Carol Rhodes’ Surface Mine and a video by Kathleen Herbert which in addition to running in the gallery will be projected on the side of the Howard Hotel on the night of January 18. The exhibition is one of several Sheffield-themed works exploring the city’s own geography which feature in the exhibition qhich is funded by the Guild of St George; founded by Ruskin in 1871.
Force of Nature: Picturing Ruskin’s Landscape opens at the Millennium Gallery on Saturday and continues until June 23.