Photo credit: The Block Museum of Art
On Feb. 7th I had the privilege of participating in a public program organized by the Block Museum (Northwestern University) as part of its William Blake in the Age of Aquarius exhibition. My talk considered the way artists and intellectuals in the sixties looked to Blake as a prophet of nuclear apocalypse. In his book Where the Wasteland Ends, Theodore Roszak — who popularized the word “counterculture” in the late 60s — argued that Blake spoke to an “apocalyptic era” threatened by nuclear holocaust. Blake “saw in the steady advance of science and machines,” Roszak wrote, “a terrifying aggression against precious human potentialities—and especially against visionary imagination.” For Roszak, Blake had embodied modern society’s self-destructive hyper-rationality in the figure of Urizen, the
William Blake – Ancient of Days
personification of abstract law, order, and reason – seen measuring the universe with a compass in the iconic Ancient of Days. In a seminar on Blake, poet Allen Ginsberg claimed the “triumph of Urizonic mentality is the “neutron bomb.” As G.K. Chesterton quipped, “A madman isn’t someone who’s lost his reason. He’s someone who has lost everything except his reason.” Urizen, for Roszak and Allen Ginsberg, prefigured the kind of insane “reason” Kubrick satirized in Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and the Blakean Bruce Conner in his Bombhead (2002).
Mr. Turner is a handsome film with a complex and charismatic performance by Timothy Spall as the irascible British Romantic painter, JMW Turner. Not since Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire has an actor used inarticulate grunts and mumbles so effectively and expressively. While the portrayal of Turner is sympathetic without being sycophantic, the quality of the film is marred, in my view, by a bizarre characterization of art and social critic, John Ruskin (played by Joshua McGuire, who is certainly having fun), as a lisping, foppish nitwit. An otherwise powerful and affecting film does itself a disservice by treating one of the towering intellects of the nineteenth century—not to mention Turner’s most articulate and ardent admirer—with such contempt. There is no doubt that Ruskin could be a strange and pathetic figure, but to portray him as a simpering nincompoop is just historically wrong. (To give just one clue to Ruskin’s influence, George Bernard Shaw once said that Ruskin’s Unto This Last converted more of the English working class to socialism than Karl Marx.) In trying to contrast Turner’s earthy potency to Ruskin’s critical grandstanding, the filmmakers have to overlook the fact that Ruskin (in addition to being one of the Victorian era’s great prose stylists) was a brilliant draftsman and watercolorist in his own right.
I sat down to pen a lengthy defense of Ruskin in light of this character assassination but discovered to my relief that a writer over at The Guardian had already done the work:
On behalf of John Ruskin, I would like to sue Mike Leigh for defamation of character. In Mr Turner, Leigh’s astonishing and sweepingly beautiful new film, the painter’s greatest champion has been traduced. Ruskin, played by Joshua McGuire, is a simpering Blackadderish caricature of an art intellectual: a lisping, red-headed, salon fop.
I almost felt physically sick when I saw him onscreen…This posthumous portrait is unconscionable.
Read the rest of the article here.