From the neo-gothic follies of 18th-century aristocrats to the blasted cityscapes of contemporary Detroit, ruins have long obsessed artistsby Evelyn Toynton / March 27, 2014 / Leave a comment
Jane and Louise Wilson’s photograph of a ruined German gun emplacement in Normandy, 2006 ©Jane and Louise Wilson
Once upon a time, gazing at ruins was considered one of life’s most exquisite pleasures. The parks designed by Capability Brown and William Kent for 18th-century aristocrats often featured a neo-gothic folly or crumbling mock-classical temple specially created to set off the surrounding landscape. Cultured travellers, meanwhile, went in search of real ruins in Britain and abroad, a trend that continued well into the 19th century. Ruined castles were a favourite destination, as were ruined abbeys set in beautiful landscapes: to satisfy the exacting requirements of the romantic sightseer, a ruin had to possess what John Constable called “melancholy grandeur.” Henry James, a connoisseur of decay in all its guises, mocked his own zealous ruin tourism as a “heartless pastime” entailing “a note of perversity.” Such perversity is nicely hinted at in the title Tate Britain has given its current exhibition of ruins in art: Ruin Lust (from the German Ruinenlust, although in German “lust” merely denotes joy or pleasure).
As the passion for ruins increased, so too did their appearance in the work of English artists. It was a time when the aesthetic doctrines of the Enlightenment—beauty as a matter of perfectly correct proportions, to be objectively appreciated by the rational mind—were being replaced, along with other Enlightenment doctrines, by a new philosophy of subjectivity. The emphasis on art’s strictly formal properties gave way to the cult of sensibility, an aesthetic more concerned with art’s power to evoke ideas and feelings and memories: associations, to borrow a term from David Hartley’s influential theories of how the mind worked.
There can hardly be a subject richer in associations than ruins—nothing more likely to conjure up poignant reflections on loss, decline, the calamitous fate of past glory and equally of past grandiosity, as in Shelley’s ruin-poem “Ozymandias.” The very incompleteness of ruins allowed the imagination, a faculty beginning to be valued above reason, to roam freely, to envision what had once been and meditate on the passage of time and the victory of water and grass over marble and stone. Thus, in The Stones of Venice, published in the mid- 19th century, John Ruskin celebrated ruins’ “mediating power, between the old and the new, and between nature and culture.”
Ruskin’s view is perfectly reflected…