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Description: Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin
~The 200th anniversary of John Ruskin’s birth is a singularly fitting moment in which to mount an exhibition exploring the nature and legacy of his achievement as an artist, writer, critic, social theorist, and educator—a figure of worldwide importance. The first time Ruskin received serious consideration at the Yale Center for British Art...
PublisherYale Center for British Art
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Director’s Foreword
The 200th anniversary of John Ruskin’s birth is a singularly fitting moment in which to mount an exhibition exploring the nature and legacy of his achievement as an artist, writer, critic, social theorist, and educator—a figure of worldwide importance. The first time Ruskin received serious consideration at the Yale Center for British Art occurred in the spring of 1978, during the institution’s opening year, when Professor George Hersey taught a graduate seminar on Ruskin’s life and work. Open to humanities students across the university, this interdisciplinary exploration focused not only on a psychoanalytic appraisal of Ruskin’s writings, but also on a social-historical examination of the influence of his attitudes toward nature in Britain and especially in North America, where art historians such as Roger Stein were beginning to recognize the power of Ruskin’s thought at play. Since that course was taught more than forty years ago, Ruskin has come to be understood as one of the most significant thinkers of his generation—one whose sustained international influence deserves far more serious attention. Unto This Last takes up this challenge, and through this exhibition and its associated publication a more complex, nuanced, and comprehensive understanding of Ruskin’s importance for our own era is certain to emerge.
Of particular note in this time of global crisis is Ruskin’s pioneering environmental thought. No art critic writing in the English language has ever rivalled his impact, nor has any other approached the sheer range of his intellectual ambition or energy. Ruskin explored an astonishing array of disciplines, and his writings were foundational for the histories of art and architecture. His support decisively established the reputation of Joseph Mallord William Turner as the consummate master of landscape painting and propelled the Pre-Raphaelites to a prominence they retain today (Turner is represented in the exhibition by a masterpiece, Venice, from the Porch of Madonna della Salute, kindly lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Ruskin was a decisive influence on early English socialism, and his writings precipitated a major shift in the treatment of historical buildings, disavowing the vulgar restorations of his era and prefiguring modern conservation practice.
Perhaps by reason of his zeal and the ubiquity of his thought, no other critic has left so contested a legacy. Unto This Last takes as its starting point the assumption that Ruskin is an historical figure in need of further critical analysis: a complex, deeply flawed, but also visionary and pioneering thinker with a revolutionary message that had a global reach and that still offers an urgent message to today’s world.
This exhibition and its accompanying publication are exemplary of what a university art museum can achieve when students, faculty, and curators work collaboratively on a project of the highest calibre. The exhibition has been curated with the utmost professionalism by three doctoral candidates in the Department of the History of Art at Yale: Tara Contractor, Victoria Hepburn, and Judith Stapleton. We extend our sincere thanks to them for bringing their dedication, rigor, and enthusiasm to all aspects of this project. We are exceptionally grateful to Tim Barringer, Paul Mellon Professor of the History of Art, for guiding these students, who are his advisees, in the formation of the exhibition and for editing this catalogue, on a topic that has preoccupied him for decades. Additional catalogue entries have been written by Yale graduate students in the History of Art: Gavriella Levy Haskell, Sophie Lynford, Mohit Manohar, and Nicholas Robbins. And during the run of the exhibition, more students from across the university will be able to engage in a discussion of Ruskin’s import and his legacy as they participate in a new graduate seminar entitled Ruskin/Marx/Modernity, taught by Professor Barringer.
The organizing curator of Unto This Last at the Center has been Courtney Skipton Long, Acting Assistant Curator of Prints and Drawings, with whom the student curators have formed a wonderful and lasting partnership, and to whom we owe an enormous debt of thanks. Appreciation must also be expressed to Matthew Hargraves, the Center’s Chief Curator of Art Collections, whose inspiration it was that this exhibition marking the bicentennial of Ruskin’s birth should be offered to student curators and who has supported the project from the outset. Elisabeth Fairman, Chief Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, and Molly Dotson, Assistant Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, both proved exceptional mentors, as well.
This spirit of collaboration has carried over into the technical organization of the exhibition and the production of its catalogue. Both aspects of the project have been overseen expertly by the Department of Exhibitions and Publications, directed by Martina Droth and headed by Nathan Flis. Members of their department, including Deborah Cannarella, Shaunee Cole, and Belene Day, are due special thanks for their work on the catalogue. Chris Lotis, also of this department, and John Ewing, are both to be thanked for copy editing, as are Livia Tenzer, for proofreading, and Kathleen Friello, for indexing. Lesley Zurolo and the Design Department, headed by Lyn Bell Rose and assisted by Tracie Cheng, are responsible for the book’s beautiful design. Corey Myers and Nancy Macgregor, in the Registrar’s Department, have arranged key loans, and our Installations team, led by Richard Johnson and Kevin Derken, has helped with the layout of the exhibition and executed its installation. Special thanks go to Gregory Shea and Maishe Dickman, who fabricated exquisite mounts for the displays, and also to Soyeon Choi, who advised on matters of conservation.
Of course, we also are indebted to colleagues at numerous institutions and to many private collectors, who so generously have agreed to share their objects for this exhibition celebrating Ruskin’s bicentennial; they are thanked in full in the Acknowledgments. At Yale, however, we especially wish to extend our appreciation to our colleagues at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, the Peabody Museum of Natural History, and the Yale University Art Gallery for their generous cooperation, which has made this cross-campus project possible. It is because of their remarkable commitment to our partnership that this exhibition is able to display for the first time so many objects from Yale’s exceptional Ruskin holdings. By drawing on the rich array of materials offered so munificently by associated collections from across the university, Unto This Last offers a critical commentary on Ruskin at 200, a profound reflection on the conflicts and contradictions that Ruskin faced in his time, as well as on those that we continue to experience in our own.
Amy Meyers
Director, Yale Center for British Art
Director’s Foreword
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