Features Essays Published 17 March 2014

Ruin Lust

A look at Tate Britain’s new exhibition exploring images of ruins in art.

Kirsten Tambling

The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, J.M.W. Turner

In 1782 William Gilpin called Tintern Abbey ‘a very inchanting piece of ruin’. The book in which he did so, Observations on the River Wye, spoke to a new generation of British tourists newly gripped with what this Tate Britain exhibition terms ‘ruin lust’, a fascination with ruins.

Locked out of the classical ruins of the rest of Europe by the Napoleonic Wars, these young British Romantics turned instead to the architectural fruits of an earlier home grown political upheaval. The Dissolution of the Monasteries was also the Ruination of the Monasteries and Tintern was one such, a former Catholic stronghold fallen into disrepair. In Tate Britain’s new exhibition, Ruin Lust, the meticulous watercolours of JMW Turner and John Sell Cotman show Tintern’s once powerful arches overrun with miniature Romantic tourists and stray cows, testament to a past way of life now fallen, overtaken by the modern world. Meanwhile, our own modern world appears in the photographs of Jane and Louise Wilson, where ruined Nazi fortifications are overwritten with graffiti – a newly pervasive way of thinking, marking and ruining in a post-war society.

It’s strange that the British religious context should go uncommented in this most British of exhibitions, with works drawn almost entirely from Tate’s own collections. Yet, in its fascination with destruction, Ruin Lust could be a pendant piece to last year’s Iconoclasm show, though that one, ironically, was a mess. Ruin Lust, by contrast, is an occasionally lyrical melding of disparate periods and ideas into a provocative whole, much like a picturesque ruin in itself.

Like a ruin, which is strangely positioned in time as both relic and warning, Ruin Lust plays havoc with chronology, juxtaposing modern, contemporary and older works throughout. A particularly smart pairing is John Stezaker’s photograph-postcard collages alongside Turner and Cotman’s watercolours. Stezaker’s The Oath (1978) places a postcard of an ancient temple atop an equally ritualistic 1950s courtroom scene. The temple itself looks very much like the ruined Temple of Poseidon in the adjacent Turner: it’s certainly close enough to look like a modern rereading of the older work, which was, in turn, a modern reading of a ruined classical construction.

Another great moment is the figure of the ruin-obsessed architect Sir John Soane. In 1830 he celebrated the completion of his Bank of England building by commissioning an illustration of it in ruins. Joseph Gandy’s birds-eye-view of the imagined ruin positions Soane’s work with the revered ruins of antiquity, but its destruction also reveals the ground-plan, allowing the viewer to fully appreciate the mastery of its architectural construction. Soane took a similar approach to his glory-hole House and Museum in Holborn, imagining throughout its construction how it would be  discovered centuries later, ruined, by a civilization that would wonder what on earth it had been built for.

This is in fact, as this exhibition shows, the irony of ruins: as buildings sag and collapse they reveal the architecture of their creation. The idea is given a twist in Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s photographs of the marks etched into the walls by Kurdish prisoners of the Red House in northern Iraq. Here, the dereliction of the ‘house’ as photographed is the result of the variously creative and destructive acts of its prisoners. That physical materiality of artworks showing ruination is clearly something the curators want you to keep in mind: the John Martin painting that opens the exhibition, The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum was itself written off as ‘completely ruined’ after the 1929 Tate flood, and the whole top right-hand corner has been painstakingly reconstructed and repainted by Tate conservators.

Like any ruin, it’s inconsistent. Though its juxtapositions of old and new were often powerful, overall Ruin Lust was still slightly mean in its treatment of the artists of the past. A 1654 Henry Gibbs painting of Aeneas’ family fleeing Troy was dredged up from the stores to take on a Patrick Caulfield, and a 1732 Richard Wilson felt similarly token in a final room full of evocative explorations of the urban ruination of London. Neither work really contributed – or was encouraged to contribute – to the conversation. But at its best moments, Ruin Lust demonstrated just how exciting the picturesque juxtaposition of disparate elements can be.

Ruin Lust is at Tate Britain from 4th March – 18th May 2014.

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Kirsten Tambling

Kirsten has worked at the Bethlem Royal Hospital Museum, The National Gallery and Dr. Johnson’s House and studied at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She’s also a zine self-publisher and impulsive project schemer.

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