Ruin Lust @ Tate Britain

A disappointing mish-mash.

Confused

Six rooms displaying a confused and confusing ragbag of paintings, watercolours, sketches and notebooks, photos, postcards and films about – in the end – a very small selection of parochial subjects: ruined abbeys, knackered old London, one or two postcards from WWI, a few paintings from WWII, a tower block being demolished.

Small range

Is that it? With the whole world of human endeavour, of civilisations which have risen and fallen, the vast range of man-made catastrophes to range over, why is the selection of images so sparse, so narrow, so flat?

The selection here felt very small and heavily weighted towards the random items which happen to be in Tate’s collection already. With a whole world to pick from there were too many mediocre paintings by John Piper or Graham Sutherland or Paul Nash, sets of photos of places which weren’t even of ruins – for goodness’ sake, a few clicks on the internet takes you to images as stunning as this – the most spectacular abandoned places in the world.

So, for example, the first room contains just three big images: one of John Martin’s end-of-the-world paintings (not strictly a ruin), a mediocre oil painting by John Constable of a ruin (poor), and the standout image of the whole show – the photo of a ruined World War II German coastal bunker by Jane and Louise Wilson. No surprise it’s the big feature of the first room and the image selected for the poster. But the disparity of these images sets the very uneven tone of the exhibition.

Photo of a ruined WW2 concrete bunker

Azeville 2006 by Jane and Louise Wilson. Copyright Jane and Louise Wilson. Tate.

No ideas

There was little attempt in the commentary to give insight into the psychological attraction of ruins: why do we like them? What pleasure(s) do we get from visiting ruins or seeing them depicted? Why did the ruin become an aesthetic category – it wasn’t in the 17th century; it was by the end of the 18th century? what changed and why? Once ruin-fancying had taken hold, what was the aesthetic difference between the ruined abbeys and monasteries of the Middle Ages which tourists could see here in Britain, and the ruins of Rome which countless aristocrats and artists were compelled to go see for themselves on the ‘Grand Tour’, which gets up and running in the second half of the 18th century and is still a requirement for characters in Henry James and EM Forster in 1900?

Why?

And how did reception of the ruin change during the Victorian era, the era of industrialisation and the creation of monstrous cities? In the 18th century it was something to do with The Sublime, as articulated by Edmund Burke: gazing on ruins gave us a pleasing sense of the Immensity of Time, the transitoriness of human glory, and of our own insignificance.

But for the Victorians, ruins came to represent calm and peace away from the hellish industrialised cities, and so became part of their cult of Nature; ruins covered in ivy and lichen were part of the Wordsworthian sanctuary they sought sanctuary in away from the Golgothas they had built and, for many (John Ruskin, William Morris) medieval ruins in particular spoke of an age when architecture and the rhythm of life ran at a human pace, on a human scale.

And then how was the whole aesthetic appeal of ruins transformed by the epic devastation of the Great War? Did the ruin of so many towns and cities, of entire landscapes, haunt artists (and civilians) after the War, who hallucinated ruination wherever they looked (as with Paul Nash’s surreal landscapes of the 1930s)? Ruins, which had provided sublimity to the Enlightenment and escape for the Victorians, now press in on our dreams, provide a menacing vision of what might industrialised warfare might do to our countryside.

And then the further devastation of the Second World War cemented the sense that everything can be ruined at any moment, that ruins are potentially all around us. Coventry, Hamburg, Dresden – any city could be utterly destroyed in a night, an intuition made even more horrific by the atrocities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Why were there no images of any of this in the exhibition? Surely the nightmare of nuclear devastation hung like a suffocating shroud over much of post-1945 culture, well into the 1990s, and innumerable artists throughout the Cold War envisioned the destruction of the entire world in a nuclear apocalypse: to take just their most obvious, popular, cinematic form, in movies from Dr Strangelove to the Terminator series.

A chronological survey, no matter how basic, might have a) established the fundamental psychological and aesthetic appeal of the ruin b) shown how these developed and became more sophisticated over time.

Quotes on the wall

The most insight I got was from a series of quotes painted on the wall outside the exhibition which I only stumbled upon by accident: one from the 8th century Anglo-Saxon poem, The Ruin, bespeaks the melancholy tone of so much Anglo-Saxon poetry (cf The Seafarer, The Dream of the Rood, Beowulf) – always the perfect world was in the past and we live in its shadow, in fallen times. There is no irony or distance, the poet’s lament is literal and heartfelt.

Wondrous is this wall-stead, wasted by fate.
Battlements broken, giant’s work shattered.
Roofs are in ruin, towers destroyed,
Broken the barred gate, rime on the plaster,
walls gape, torn up, destroyed,
consumed by age. Earth-grip holds
the proud builders, departed, long lost,
and the hard grasp of the grave, until a hundred generations
of people have passed.

Another quote is from Denis Diderot writing in the 1700s, pretty much 1,000 years after the Anglo-Saxon poet, in which the enlightened Frenchman sees walking in the ruins of Rome as an exquisite pleasure, conveying multiple sensations to the Man of Taste, namely:

  • that every step is placed where Caesar and Augustus walked – the thrill of sharing the same space with Great Men
  • the sense of the immensity of Time, the thrilling sense of the vastness of the ages and, by extension, our own insect-like insignificance which, in some moods, can be pleasurable – what are all my woes and troubles? Nothing compared to the great ages which have passed.

For this characteristic Enlightenment philosophe ruins can be consoling and comforting and/or offer glimpses of the sublime.

Tintern Abbey: The Crossing and Chancel, Looking towards the East Window by JMW Turner (1794). Tate

Tintern Abbey: The Crossing and Chancel, Looking towards the East Window by JMW Turner (1794). Tate

But why was there such a glaring gap where there should have been quotes from the Victorian era?

And of the twentieth century, the Century of Disasters, why only a casual mention late on in the show of JG Ballard saying Modernist architecture contains the premonition of its own destruction – a typically brilliant insight: the disaster, the apocalypse already built-in to the design of modern buildings. But surely a few people had something to say about twentieth century ruins?

When the camera floats over Manhattan in Koyanisqaatsi it is not to celebrate these soaring achievements of man’s ingenuity (as it might have been in the 1940s and 50s) but to give a foreboding sense that these absurdly priapic buildings are unnatural, the mushroom outgrowth of a culture which is destroying itself.

The Modernist notion that through technology and design we can build a better world (which, very roughly, fuelled so much art, politics and architecture from the 1920s to the 1970s) has expired, and we live in a post-Modernist age, among not just the physical ruins, but the intellectual and cultural ruins of those high hopes.

We now know we are destroying the world, the future will be worse than the past, the environment is being degraded at an escalating rate, our children will have worse lives than us and live in a world in far worse shape: no coral reefs; no fish; the vengeful sea rushing in to engulf our flood-plains.

Selected highlights

Apparently William Gilpin‘s writings about ruins from the 1740s onwards helped define ‘the picturesque’ and inspired artists and poets to seek out ruins. This ‘ruin lust’ became a standard part of the Grand Tour of Europe which every cultured man was expected to take throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, building to a climax amid the ruins of Rome.

Of course there are good things to enjoy in the show:

Coggeshall Church, Essex 1940 by John Armstrong. Tate

Coggeshall Church, Essex 1940 by John Armstrong. Tate

Modern modern art ie since the 1960s:

The show includes too much that isn’t even about ruins:

  • Paul Nash’s surrealist photos from the 1930s – which I greatly liked but these included nice photos of tree stumps and logs in fields – not ruins at all: why were they here?
  • Laura Oldfield Ford works based on the crappy brutalist Ferrier Estate ie paintings or photos themselves covered in scrawled graffiti – damaged but not ruins…
  • Paul Graham’s photos of roads in Ulster; buildings bombed during the Troubles I would have understood, but these are photos of just roads – evocative, but not ruins…
  • John Tillson’s portrait-shaped frames containing a tryptich of images: a fish, a Celtic cross, some text – nice enough but nothing to do with ruins…
  • Jon Savage, the chronicler of punk, took photos of London in the 1970s: these were desperately disappointing. I remember a landscape of deprivation and destruction, these anodyne images of flyovers didn’t capture it at all, nowhere near as bleak and shabby as I remember.

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  1. British Folk Art @ Tate Britain | Books & Boots

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