To the Editor of “Modernity and the Visual.”
MADAM — I am sincerely desirous to comment upon The Dial’s unclaimed essay “The Unwritten Book” in relation to the woodcut illustrations of its second volume. While I say unclaimed, I have no hesitation in asserting that it is loud in style and ideology so as to be winkingly written by Mr. Charles Ricketts.
I do not wish to impugn the contents of this essay nor the fantastic detail of this volume; in fact, as a reader who may perhaps be well beyond the scope of Mr. Ricketts’ imagination for the audience of this limited print run, I see its execution as a bold refinement of the ideals put forth in its first volume.
Of profound importance is document, the “combination of known quantities” that blend the “exquisite detail” of the senses while making no claims to originality nor forcing dependence on narrative within or without.
Worked out by Mr. Ricketts himself, the volume’s cover becomes document, that monument of moods, by integrating the creator’s artistic ideology in its symbolic content: obscenely lofty and high, like its Vitruvian Icarus, while rooted firmly in artistic tradition (and winking, with both eyes, at the merits of wood engraving), shown in the laboriously detailed wooden architecture. It also casts the contemporary craftsmen movement as meritoriously comparable to the other traditional arts depicted on this cover.
These beams house a Proserpine-like profile of a woman, crowned in a Pre-Raphaelite nod to Flora symbolica. And both flora and symbolica abound: the loftiest desires of the soul soar as doves above the editors’ names; the sundial and bell in their top-left position (the place of “first”) acknowledge the passage of time and The Dial‘s first volume cover; and the artist’s initials are hidden in the frame lying on the floor, its position both temporary and fixed, situated in “existence and preexistence”.
I cannot claim to be an expert on floriography or era-accurate artistic symbolism, and this is precisely the problem: document is designed for such an exclusive audience, smaller than even The Dial’s number of copies, who may be able to unearth the vast artistic breadth that the editors draw upon.
As fellow letter-writer John Ruskin says, “The public… when referred to with respect to a particular work, consist only of those who have knowledge of its subject, and are possessed of the faculties to which it is addressed”. The Dial is a work clearly meant for “the public” of a very few.
And so the editors laugh at their critics, questioning, “who are you to say what is artistically valuable?”. They precisely elucidate this censure as their last word, “He laughed, because he knew they could not mean what they said”.
It would therefore be presumptuous to expect weight to be attached to any opinion of mine, and yet, in Messrs. Ricketts’ and Shannon’s volume I encounter a fundamental tension that I cannot resolve through close reading. The Dial draws on ideologies that, while keenly and aesthetically attractive, are incompatible. The anti-establishment verisimilitude of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and “vraisemblence” are housed uncritically in the same frame as Albrecht Dürer’s anatomically-incorrect armoured rhinoceros, which he created without ever having seen such a creature. These artistic methodologies oppose each other, and yet The Dial places them side-by-side with the fantastic and calls it document.
But I feel that any criticism of mine is very easily swatted away as spurious by the final word of this volume, and the laughs of its creators.
I have the honour to be, Madam,
The Author of this letter,
October 18, 2020
Ricketts, Charles. “The Unwritten Book.” The Dial, vol. 2, 1892, pp. 25-28. Dial Digital Edition, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2018-2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://1890s.ca/dialv2-ricketts-unwritten/
Ruskin, John. Arrows of the Chase: A Selection of Scattered Letters. Project Gutenberg, 2015, www.gutenberg.org/files/49508/49508-h/49508-h.htm.