Ruskin’s Rocks: Stones and Spirituality in Victorian Britain
With an introduction from Michael J. Lewis, Faison-Pierson-Stoddard Professor of Art History:
John Ruskin (1819-1900), England’s foremost art critic and social theorist, had a vital interest in geology: he studied it at Oxford, painted geological subjects, and had much to say about the meaning of stone in architecture, above all in his influential Stones of Venice. John Damstra shows how Ruskin responded to the great geological controversy of his day, the discovery that the earth was not thousands but millions of years old, a discovery that challenged orthodox religious belief. For Ruskin, an architecture of alternately colored masonry evoked the patiently accumulated rock strata of geological deep time.
Damstra looks at the complex matrix of intellectual and artistic ideas out of which Ruskin’s geological thought arose. He brings together Ruskin’s lifelong interest in color, his enthusiasm for the work of J. M. W. Turner, and his intellectual debt to William Buckland, his brilliant geology professor, who struggled to reconcile Christianity with modern science. Ultimately, Damstra shows, these currents interacted to create Ruskin’s staggeringly complex understanding of a building, so that a simple wall of colored stone could be read simultaneously as an abstract painting, an evocation of Venice, a layered palimpsest of its building process, and a metaphor for the earth itself.
Emma Nell Jacobs
Exile and Exemplar: Clyfford Still in the Atomic Age
With an introduction from Robert Wiesenberger, Associate Curator of Contemporary Projects at The Clark:
In this paper, Emma Jacobs explodes the midcentury American mythos of both Abstract Expressionism and the atomic bomb by analyzing the two in dialogue, and in the person of Clyfford Still. Considered by some to be the leading painter of his generation, this enigmatic and reclusive artist seemed torn between representing his age and standing outside of it, between figuration and a monumental, harsh form of abstraction. In asking what art form could be adequate to the bomb, Jacobs finds both the “abstract sublime” and the “atomic sublime” wanting, and warns against abstractions of very real human violence.
The Volcano and the Cell: Two Models of Animacy in the Work of Edward Steichen
With an introduction from Emmelyn Butterfield-Rosen, Associate Director of the Graduate Program:
Andrew Kensett’s qualifying paper is an audacious exercise in formal comparison that reveals, through a juxtaposition of two seemingly disparate photographs by Edward Steichen––Balzac—The Silhouette, 4 a.m. (1908) and Time Space Continuum (c. 1920)––nothing less than an epistemological restructuring of the concept of creative potency. By demonstrating how these two stylistically very different photographs share a basic compositional substructure, Andrew gives a nuanced and vividly material account of an ideological and conceptual transformation that took place in Steichen’s work as he transitioned from a pictorialist to a more modernist formal idiom after the First World War. In the aftermath of this cataclysm, as Andrew shows in riveting detail, Steichen’s geological imagining of creative, animate force gave way to a genetic one, and the realization that, in a phrase of P. D. Ouspensky that Andrew’s talk will gloss to stunning effect, “a microscopic living cell is more powerful than a volcano.”