I came out of Ruin Lust, an exhibition at Tate Britain all about ruins in art, with very mixed emotions – some of the exhibits had elements of greatness, yet the exhibition as a whole disappointed on many levels.
Of course I was most significantly drawn to the almost mystical depictions of ruins from the Romantic era – the misty, picturesque scenes of decay, with nature resurgent where man had failed. I had seen many of the paintings on display before in other museums and galleries (such as Turner’s watercolour The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking towards the East Window (see left), and Paul Nash’s Pillar and Moon), but I was hoping for a much wider selection from all the periods covered in this exhibition.
For instance, simply typing into Google some relevant words brings up a far wider scope of art than at this exhibition. I appreciate the argument that of course typing into Google will bring up a huge range anyway, but I specifically chose to use the word ‘scope’ for that very reason – it’s not all about quantity. Yes we have one epic canvas from John Martin (The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum) and a few large photographs of ruinous WWII German gun emplacements (see below) from Jane and Louise Wilson – but what about pieces like Eldena Ruin near Greifswald by Caspar David Friedrich, or David Roberts crumbling Egyptian temples, or The Entire City by Max Ernst, or the photographs of Derelict Detroit by Philip Jarmain that I covered in a previous post.Apart from the limited scope of the exhibition I found that many of the ‘rooms’ had quite tenuous links with the theme of ruins. I know that curators like to make points and relate everything to our modern world, but to have a whole section called Ruins in Reverse and claim a ‘rise into ruins’ seemed a little desperate.
I don’t know if it was my predisposition to Romanticism that caused me to have trouble comprehending the point of this ‘room’ but the idea that to build can be a ruinous act felt extremely pessimistic. Inevitably the examples on display were of post war modernism – concrete, tower blocks, graffiti, that sort of thing, (as usual!). But what is so often forgotten about that time was the intense need for social housing, the slum housing they replaced and the hope and optimism with which they were initially built and accepted by the inhabitants. The image we are usually fed of decaying concrete and graffiti is the idea that they were modernist slums, and in some cases they were (and many became), but on the whole they were certainly successful in the early years, before the decades of neglect by town councils. To me part of the appeal of ruins is that they represent an optimism that either died, was killed off, or simply failed – if they had emphasised the failed optimism of post war architecture then I would have understood and appreciated it far more readily, rather than the idea of building into decay! To build is and always will be an inherently optimistic endeavor and not pursuit of the pessimism of ruination.
The first couple of rooms were by far the best, with Joseph Gandy’s depiction of John Soane’s newly finished Bank of England in ruins (above), the drama of John Martin’s The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (which has a fascinating phoenix like history of it’s own) and a couple of engravings by Gustave Dore and Piranesi (reminding me yet again that I really need to get a book of Dore’s engravings).
The fourth room was dedicated to Tacita Dean – another room I didn’t really get. It included a few photographs and a film, but made reference to her work featuring the redundant technology of Denge acoustic mirrors and a former East Berlin TV tower, but it featured neither of them! It felt like another wasted opportunity.
Strangely, after my little rant, I am actually glad I went to see the exhibition – if only so that I didn’t regret not going, I might have been left with the feeling that it was far better than it actually turned out to be.
I quite often buy the exhibition catalogue after my visits, and I still left with the intention of buying it (so contrary to my review, there was something good about the exhibition) but when I had a look at the book it was a complete disappointment – it was extremely small and thin and was not not a catalogue of the exhibition but a few pictures and an essay or two. Needless to say, I didn’t buy it.
If you are interested in seeing the exhibition yourself there is only a week left – it closes on the 18th May 2014.