What is it that we so enjoy in the gloomy comfort of a good ruin? The number of picturesque follies scattered about the English landscape might make one think this is a peculiarly British taste, but according to the Tate’s new show, its origins lie in Germany, in the 18th century. The Germans after all set up the whole idea of the beautiful and the sublime, and Ruinelust propelled many an early tourist up and down the Rhine; according to the Tate, that liking for being chilled and thrilled is with us still. I’m not sure this is news to anyone who has ever watched a horror movie, and in fact the show begins with John Martin’s vast hot lava-red ‘Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum’ from 1822, a vision of global destruction that makes movies such as ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ look as if they’re not even trying.
Martin’s painting was itself semi-destroyed by the flood that drowned fourteen poor souls and swamped the lower galleries of the Tate in 1928, and after this winter I guess we’re all rather more aware of how unexpectedly ruin and destruction can sweep down upon us. Of course that too is part of the attraction of a good ruin. Those 18th-century tourists depicted by Turner and his contemporaries, mooching about the watercolour remains of one Abbey after another, handily throwing the bare ruined choirs into scale – you can be pretty sure they’re wearing smiles of quiet satisfaction. The worst has already happened, but to someone else.
The other great attraction of a ruin is of course to view it when you’re feeling miserable yourself. However grand, however great, ruin waits for us all. It’s pleasurably unsettling to walk down the enfilade of the Tate – those unmistakable, super-solid temple-columns on either side, breathing all the plutocratic confidence of Lord Duveen of Millbank, their creator – and imagine them covered in ivy and open to the sky. In this vein, one of the most eye-catching works in the show is John Piper’s ‘Forum’, of 1961. It was Piper who memorialized the perfectly intact Windsor Castle during World War II in depressive shades of puddle-water and mud – yet put him in front of a real ruin, and clearly he cheers up immensely. His ‘Forum’ is pink with Roman sunlight; his study of the church of St Mary le Port in Bristol, bombed in 1940, is vivid with orange, blue and gold.
Unsurprisingly, much of the show records the destruction wrought by war, as well as that by time – the man-made ruin, as opposed to the classical. The John Martin is partnered by not only a massive Constable oil-study of Hadleigh Castle, but by an immense black-and-white of the World War II fortification of Azeville, on the Channel coast, by Jane and Louise Wilson, as dark and overpowering as a cave. There are many different connections running between the works in this show, but it does rather leave you to fill them in yourself. The range of works is impressive – along with painting and photography, there is sculpture, video, full-scale installations – but all are culled from the Tate, and as is so often the case with such shows, they aren’t all up to the same standard, and with some it is a bit of a puzzle to work out what they add to the whole. Just how many watercolour ruins does any one show need?
The photographs come out as the stars. A photograph of a ruin is different to a painting; there’s less human intervention in it. Paul Nash’s plain and simple photographs of abandoned corners in desolate fields seem doubly lonely, simply recorded by the camera rather than placed by the same artist upon a canvas. A set of late 19th-century photographs of London’s long-lost Tudor taverns and derelict Georgian streets records not just the ruins in the foreground, but the Victorian city rising above them; James Boswell’s lithographs from the 1930s show in turn the falling into decay of Victorian embankments and roadways. Laura Oldfield’s drawing of 2010, one of the most recent works in the show, depicts the kind of ugly concrete sink-hole estate where London now sends its poor to live – the lines of the drawing record almost no signs of decay, and are as straight and impersonal as an architect’s sketch, but the drawing as a whole is smudged and smeared with lurid pink graffiti, marks of the kind of damage this environment both suffers and inflicts. We create, we destroy, and that – so this work seems to say – gives rise to another sort of creativity. This is a show that encourages such pondering. There is an elegant little essay by Brian Dillon accompanying it, bound as a hardback and just the right size to slip into one’s pocket as an aide to doing so. Choose a rainy afternoon and pay ‘RuinLust’ a visit. Get good and gloomy and enjoy.