The 2-minute swan

JOHN RUSKIN, the 19th-century critic and champion of the artist J.M.W. Turner, observed that ``there were few things [Turner] hated more than hearing people gush about particular drawings. He knew it merely meant they would not see the others.'' Turner wanted his art to be seen and appreciated as an entirety. There is something about the sheer impulsion of his enormously productive career that conveys this conviction of parts being less important than the whole. And in his individual paintings, details are subservient to the force of the total composition. The sublime exercised him more than the particular.

Ruskin, on the other hand, a fine and competent watercolor painter himself, possessed a meticulous delight in the minutest details of nature. And though as a writer he was the greatest appreciator of the totality of Turner's work, he was also capable of gushing over particular drawings.

The two drawings of swans shown here are just one example. Ruskin found them irresistible, describing them as ``fine beyond all expression.'' He saw them - as he frequently saw his hero's works - as a lesson in how swans ought to be drawn. His comments on these two drawings compare them with drawings by other (lesser) artists of the same graceful water bird.

It was in one of his ``Lectures on Landscape'' that he had the most to say about them. He presented Turner as a ``colourist'' to whom...the first main facts about a swan are that it is a white thing with black spots. Turner takes one brush in his right hand, with a little white in it; another in his left hand, with a little lamp black. He takes a piece of brown paper, works for about two minutes with his white brush, passes the black to his right hand, and works half a minute with that, and there you are! You would like to be able to draw two swans in two minutes and a half yourselves. Perhaps so, and I can show you how; but it will need twenty years' work all day long. First, in the meantime, you must draw them rightly, if it takes two hours instead of two minutes; and, above all, remember that they are black and white.

What this description serves to do, with catching enthusiasm, is express the almost magical dexterity of the artist at work. His words make one study intently Turner's economy of means, the energy and directness with which he conveys the form and characteristic movements of this large floating bird. The movements he referred to include the strange curvings and extensions of its neck as it rises out of the water into flight or postures threateningly at the intrusion of another swan on its territory, with wings full blown like sails. Ruskin also points to ``how grandly'' Turner indicates the surface and agitated ripples of the water. Its quick sweeps and curves of the brush seem almost oriental.

Ruskin's view that such accomplished drawings take a master like Turner no more than a minute or two - given 20 years' daily practice - actually involved an unconscious irony, easily visible now with hindsight. Ruskin was sued for libel by the painter James McNeill Whistler for his criticism of Whistler's ``Nocturnes.'' With rash indignation, Ruskin said he ``never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face.'' The question of the speed with which an artist works came up in court. Whistler was asked under cross-examination whether he really felt such a vast sum of money was justifiable ``for two days' work.'' The adversary Ruskin could only have approved his answer. ``No,'' Whistler said, ``I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime.''

Whistler's opinion was that art critics were of no value to society at all. Turner would perhaps have agreed with him up to a point, though he seems to have been friendly toward Ruskin even if he scarcely thanked him for his copious defense of his art. Turner never bothered to rush to his own defense when his work was slanged, though such opposition may have acted as a spur to the competitive spirit with which he often painted his exhibition pictures.

Criticism, anyway, is a curious business - putting into the laborious, long-winded medium of words the immediacy of images. Ruskin's delight in the swan drawings can't be doubted. But his description of the way he thought Turner painted them is surely inaccurate, if not virtual fantasy.

For a start there is no black paint or ink used - no ``lamp black.'' The ink is brown, subtly varied in its lightness or intensity. In the drawing of the two swans, for instance, the foot of the right-hand one shows as a dark shape below its tail, and lighter brown dashes indicate the foot's reflection in the water. White gouache (opaque watercolor) is certainly used to indicate the color of these splendid birds, but it is sketchily applied and by no means gives special emphasis to their whiteness, as Ruskin suggests it does.

And in another note, Ruskin told his readers to observe especially ``the grand respect of Turner for local colour - the swan's black beak being to him, as it would be to every simple and honest observer, one of the main points of interest in the creature....''

This is even odder: The bill of the mute swan, though it has a black base and knob, is notable for being orange - a fact that Turner himself had observed with touches of orange watercolor. Ruskin doesn't mention this color any more than he points to the minute spot of white Turner gave to the eye of the flying swan, bringing it vividly to life.

Nor does Ruskin seem to have noticed the underlying structure of the drawings in pencil. Or the excitement with which the open wings of the flying bird are painted, the brush having conveniently split its hairs in two, producing a structural emphasis that is also appropriately feathery.

Marvelous though the swan drawings are, they are not scrupulously focused natural history studies. Niceties of anatomy are not fussed over. They are workmanlike, generalized notations.

Presumably they might be useful information for some finished painting later on. It is almost secondarily - though with a carefree instinctiveness which Ruskin was surely right to consider unsurpassably fine - that they appreciate and celebrate the glorious strangeness of swans.

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