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the ruins lesson

2 september 2022

I made an odd resolution earlier this year: I was going to stop taking the kind of photos that Susan Stewart, in her amazing, wide-ranging study of such images, calls "ruins porn" (xiii). In just the few years before COVID, as represented in my iCloud camera roll, I had taken pictures of ruined structures in: Paris; Picher, Oklahoma; the Texas Gulf Coast; Pittsburgh; Manhattan; Iceland; Gdańsk; El Paso; Cotton Plant, Arkansas; Cairo, Illinois; Cincinnati; Denver; Mineral Wells, Texas; Buffalo; and Little Rock.

Visual artists – or in my case, idiots with iPhones – have been drawn to ruins for a very long time. Ruins can ugly, or offensive, or sad; but they also exhibit aesthetic qualities that are genuinely beautiful: surprise, serendipity, organic reassertion against the artificial. Images of ruins can thus be high art, and a vast number of Western artworks are devoted to them. But there is also something prurient about ruins imagery, something ironically hip, something indecent. No matter what your aesthetic intent, you are gloating, more or less directly, about the collapse of something that other people once enjoyed.

The Ruins Lesson concerns itself with Western art and literature, mostly since the Middle Ages. But that is still a vast territory, and Stewart doesn't limit herself to a mere catalog of ruins imagery. The Ruins Lesson is less a book that you read straight through for its argument (which constantly diverges, ramifies, and recirculates) than a book that you keep for continual reference, because you are going to run into ruins imagery all the time, in any number of contexts.

Stewart's organization is roughly chronological. The ancients had a concept of ruins – think of the foretold disintegration of the Wall in Book 12 of the Iliad, or Troy itself, or the Tower of Babel – but ruins became a common Western them in the middle ages, when there were ample ancient ruins to reflect on. Verbal arts took the lead, as in the Old English Hwær cwom? tradition – where did it all go – that retains its melancholy power a thousand years later.

When surviving works of visual art begin to depict ruins, it is often in paradoxical contrast. An early tradition in Western painting sets the Nativity in a ruined building of some sort – not just a barn, but a house or castle or fortress repurposed as a barn. The ultimate rebirth thus happens in the midst of maximal falling-apart.

Ruins imagery became symbolically entwined with images of ruined women, and with sybils, as well as saints and hermits. Gradually, ruins emerged from the background of Christian-themed paintings to become a subject in themselves. Sometimes such images were studies of real-life ruins, but often, as in the works of Piranesi, they proceeded from the artist's imagination. Like many another artistic commonplace, a ruin was a topos rather than an item of visual information.

As Stewart gets nearer the present, images of ruins get more and more meta and self-conscious. By the Romantic era, with its near-craze for ruins, ruins were no longer just evocative or picturesque; they were outward signs of incipient decay within, images not of grandeur past but of the inevitable collapse of grandeur present.

In the process, the stories that Stewart tells about artworks become weirder and more intricate. In 1766, architect Charles-Louis Clérisseau was commissioned to create a "ruin room" in a Roman monastery. Apparently unsatisfied by the stock of ruins nearby, the Franciscans in question wanted a ruin right inside their building. But not a real ruin: a trompe-l'œil ruin, an intact room painted so that it looked like it was crumbling away and open to the sky. "For many years the monks … used the room as an infirmary" (209), I guess on the theory that there is something edifying about the aesthetics of decay.

Hubert Robert (1733-1808), an early director of the Louvre after it became a national museum in the wake of the Revolution, was a prolific painter of ruins. Many museums in France and worldwide hold one of his fantastical paintings of impossibly vast, improbably dilapidated, ruins. The Louvre itself holds studies that Robert made of its galleries when he was planning their layout; it also holds uncanny images that he made of the Louvre itself gone back to ruin in some future that, even after many a tribulation, the Louvre has fortunately yet to experience.

Another early-modern caprice was the Désert de Retz, a pleasure garden built as a fake ruin which in turn has been abandoned and left to become a real ruin. Ruins accumulated across Europe in the wake of world wars, some rebuilt without a trace of their destruction, others like the Gedächtniskirche in Berlin, preserved as monitory memorials.

And after the fall of the Iron Curtain, ruin proceeded apace in central and eastern Europe. I mentioned above wandering ruins in Gdańsk, where an old garrison from the time of the Kaisers moulders in a park setting where new development – coffee shops, a boutique hotel – has crept back in among the picturesqueness.

But despite economic growth since 1989, parts of the old Communist bloc remain depopulated and falling apart. The Soviets withdrew from their military hospital at Beelitz, near Berlin, and the eerie place – some of its buildings still showing damage from 1945 – has become a tourist attraction, with a raised walkway from which you can gaze into the ruins. Communism didn't degrade it; capitalist abandonment did, and now capitalism is trying to restore it as a theme-park version of itself.

In Meissen, further south, this summer, I could not resist taking one more ruins image, which may be my last, at least till I can't resist the next one. "VEB Lehrmittel": a nationalized educational-supplies company in the days of the DDR, and after the fall of the Wall apparently no longer a going concern without state support. Private enterprise has greatly enriched the old East Germany, but it has also left behind ruins already, in what seems historically like a mere instant.

Stewart, Susan. The Ruins Lesson: Meaning and material in western culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020. PN 56 .R87S74