Wednesday, January 8, 2014

128. Titian's confession of faith as an artist

After the closure of the Vale Press in 1904, Charles Ricketts did not abandon book design. He was not only asked to design Oscar Wilde's De Profundis (1905), he also did the binding for Wilde's collected works (1908) and made illustrations and designed bindings for books by Michael Field, Gordon Bottomley, Laurence Binyon, W.B. Yeats, Bernard Shaw, and others. Almost every year, until the end of his life, he designed a book. 

However, it is quite right to state, as Nicholas Frankel does in his introduction to Charles Ricketts's Everything for Art: Selected Writings (recently released by The Rivendale Press), that Ricketts had turned his attention to other occupations, mainly painting and art criticism. Frankel reads between the lines of his farewell to the Vale Press:

We can already sense a diversification in Ricketts's interests written between the lines of the Introduction to A Bibliography. Ricketts was beginning to turn away from matters of printing and bookmaking to those broader questions of art that would preoccupy him for much of the next two decades. Indeed as the "Writings on Art" that follow show, Ricketts career as a book-designer and printer can justifiably be seen as something of a detour - albeit a vital and influential one - in a career that had begun by pressing questions about the constitution and basis of art. (p. 41)

Ricketts published three books of art criticism - The Prado and Its Masterpieces (1903), Titian (1910), and Pages on Art (1913) - and while he designed bookbindings for others in those years, he did not design these three.

Spine of Charles Ricketts, Titian (1910), printed with the series design in gold on blue buckram
With his early writings on art Ricketts introduced a symbolist influence in England. In these, and in later pieces, he stressed the importance of design, of harmony, skill and technique. According to the art historian Roger Fry, Ricketts was an exceptional writer on art, and one who 'talked of colour with such profound feeling for its imaginative significance'. Ricketts also emphasized the skill of the painter Rubens, whom he judged one of the best draftsmen (only Michelangelo was better): his figures are 'flexible solids seen in space, and influenced in their shape by the laws of balance and the actual facts of their substance'. Of all artists that he admired - Gustave Moreau, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Diego Vélazquez - Titian was his greatest example.

Spine of the rare dust-wrapper for Charles Ricketts, Titian (1910), printed with the series design in blue on brown paper
Nicholas Frankel writes about his love for Titian's work:

Both The Prado and Titian speak loudly of Ricketts's love of Venetian painting. But for Ricketts, Titian above all was "the father of modern interpretive painting". Both books contain judicious summations as well as startling readings of Titian's paintings, cloaked in a painterly prose that closely mirrors the experience of viewing the painting's canvas. No reproduction does justice to the textures and colours of Titian's Bacchanal, Ricketts observes for example, and poor restoration had weakened the picture by the time Ricketts viewed it in the flesh. (p. 49-50)

Titian's was "the faculty to order things with the power of selection which belongs to the poet," Ricketts observes, and "his gift of selection in the storehouse of Nature is so great that we are liable to forget the limitations and conventions which had existed before him." It would not be enough to say, however, that "he opened the window in the palace of Art upon the wealth of Nature" since Titian undoubtedly "shut them upon many details which earlier masters had noted." Titian's power, says Ricketts, lies in his grasp of "larger facts, such as the solidity of ground, the breadth and movement of the sky, the individuality in the structure of the trees, the balance and breadth in the construction of the human figure, and the moving mystery in the light and shade." The designs of earlier painters, and even those of the great Florentine primitives, affect us by comparison as "scenes upon a stage, where sky, trees, and buildings are represented at full size, yet actually dwarfed by comparison to the scale in nature. "Titian, by contrast, "reduced the size of his 'theatre,' and chose facts that would fall readily into relation." (p. 51)

Spine of a later binding for Charles Ricketts, Titian (1910), with the series design blind-stamped on blue buckram
When we come away from Ricketts's art criticism, it is his own prose that lingers in the mind (p. 51).

Frankel then quotes a passage that starts with:

The Garden of Loves, the Bacchanal, and the Bacchus and Ariadne were amongst those fine things which Michael Angelo saw and praised at the court of Ferrara, together with a portrait now unfortunately lost. Together they form what may be called Titian's confession of faith as an artist....

Frankel concludes his introduction to Ricketts's writings on art with:

The passage gives a clue to the peculiar genius of Ricketts's own writings about art: we admire the acute sensitivity and rich enthusiasm of Ricketts's judgments, forgetting that these are produced by artistic means no less than the paintings he criticizes. The interlocking rhythms and textures of Ricketts's prose capture the overall "design" of the painting, mirroring if not creating the experience of viewing it. Under the ease and apparent spontaneity of Ricketts's writings on art, we might say, lies a skill that is born from Ricketts's intimate familiarity with the literary arts no less than his encyclopedic knowledge of the visual ones. (p. 52)