Words by Patrick Kirk-Smith
In a crowded lecture theatre, faced with five pin ups of the old masters of landscape painting, a piercing announcement broke the anticipating silence. “It is the year 1853 and Alexander Graham Bell has yet to conceive the telephone. In this spirit, please silence your own.”
John Ruskin is rarely presented as a funny man, and this lecture was no different. But we were very much put in our place, and at ease, by the surreal announcement preceding O’Keeffe’s embodiment of the great critic. What came as the biggest surprise throughout this lecture was how well O’Keeffe managed to capture the spirit of a man most regularly portrayed in bit parts, and focused the audience on his history, and his affectations in a manner that was more a remembrance than an act.
I know several members of the audience were regretting their notion to subject themselves to an hour and a half of lecture, too often dull and uninspiring, but I would be willing to bet they left with no memory of that regret. The lecture was a history lesson in many respects, but stood with resonance today, with many still regarding Turner as the best landscape painter to have lived. He is certainly one of the most successful, living or dead, and by far the most well-known. Whether he is the best is a matter of opinion.
Fortunately, that’s just what we expect with Ruskin, and exactly what we were given. O’Keeffe’s generous bio-lecture caught that opinion, and presented it not with pomposity, but with honesty, and dignity. It was a picture of Ruskin that we do not usually see, a picture of him as a peer, and a man of empathy; rather than as the tyrant whose opinion made or broke. On the other hand, that tyranny remains. There is a power to O’Keeffe’s delivery which goes a long way to explaining why Ruskin was so well regarded, and so highly believed.
There is a genuine tone in his words, and a clear emotive response to Turner and his work, which surpasses a mere visual critic. It is the emotion that sparked my interest most, as part of an historical account of both a relationship between friends and colleagues, and of this turning point in fine art painting that elevated the relationships between viewer and work to more than it had ever been. Turner created work that required a response, not just work that wanted to show. It was this understanding of his subject, of each individual landscape, and his desire to surpass his previous achievements, that led to his success. That Ruskin celebrates convincingly.
O’Keeffe is lost to Ruskin, and the audience believe what they hear, and who they hear it from. And this is the only reason I can summon to explain why O’Keeffe is not a name you may have heard yet: He’s too good; he portrays Ruskin in such a convincing manner, such an intimate manner; one we have not seen him in before. It is impossible to separate actor from character in this brilliant recreation of one of art history’s most important lectures.