Ruins…ruined…beautiful

November 3, 2010

 The Renaissance humanists found beauty in ruins.   They took what they could dig up.  They thought the best was behind them, and they sought to live up to the ancient ideals.  Was this the first example of stylistic revivalism?

 

Later on, archaeologists got to work on those beautiful ruins.  Enlightenment artists like Piranesi took a methodical interest in the remnants of Classical Civilization, and produced views of it that were part postcard, part scientific document, and part aesthetic reverie.

Finally, the Romantics found ruins beautiful, but only certain kinds of ruins.

Today, the aesthetic back and forth between beauty and ugliness, the sordid and the sublime, the natural and the artificial continues, as always.

Now, there are a bunch of photographers who love to take pictures of industrial decay.  Some call it industrial decay pornHaving spent lots of time in Detroit, I can understand the frustration of the person in this link.  Others are clearly entranced by the aesthetic possibilities of magnificent abandoned sites, as in these pictures on Flickr.  Not sure how they would feel about their subjects if they were simply unemployed with no propsects, after working on the factory line…

This color image is almost over the top, but it looks very much like factories I visited on Doremus Avenue, NJ, which is shown in the B&W image at the top.  Doremus was the center of the chemical industry in the USA during the late 19th and early 20th century. (More images here.)

Is it the romance of industry that draws them?  The Ozymandias outlook?  Fascination with decadence?  Purely aesthetic possibilities of texture, space, tone?  The image at the bottom left looks positively Piranesian, while the one on the right is simply depressing in its presentation of utter decreptitude.  Would these subjects be interesting to anyone but engineers if they were functioning and in good repair?  (I know there are photographers of contemporary industry too…)

Plowden was making a statement, a plea, with his photographs of American wastelands, but these images seem contemplative and a bit voyeuristic.  At least on the Web, I find very little interest in what the subjects actually are, what they were for,  only how they look.

 

Coming full circle, sort of, we have the image below which shows not ruins, but a functioning geothermal plant in Iceland.  No ice to be seen; bathers and boaters frolic in this Edenic scene from Dante’s Inferno.  An absolutely mind-bending union of thematic opposites.


At the Met

August 3, 2010

Assyrian_Relief__North-West_Palace_of_Nimrud__room_B__panel_18____865___860_BC__British_Museum   7328123454_fedbaa7c40_m

Dipped into the Metropolitan today to see some of my old favorites.  Why do I love these reliefs so?  The inscriptions relate the insufferable and ceaseless bragging of the Great King.  “I fought, I killed, I conquered, I slew…etc. etc.”  Perhaps it has something to do with a different sort of Magic Kingdom, the one to which I was occasionally vouchafed a visit in my southern Californian childhood, the original Disneyland.  On the freeway ride there my eyes were always diverted by this outlandish structure shown below:  It’s the Samson Tire Factory, built in the late 1920′s.

Whenever I am at the Met, I always make it a point to take a few minutes to pay my respects to the founder of modern chemistry, painted with his wife by Jacques-Louis David.

DT1992

Antoine Lavoisier was a minor noble, and a very great scientist.  He was among the most liberal of the pre-revolutionary elite, and he was guillotined in The Terror for his pains.  (He had held the post of chief tax farmer for the king.)   I was thinking today that this picture shows only one of the couple having their portrait painted.  Madame is posing, looking out at us, but he is busy working at his desk.  You can just hear her, “Dear, Monsieur David is here to paint our picture.  Please stop your work a moment, as important as it is.”  He hears something, looks up, over his shoulder, “Ah yes, my dear.  So sorry, I forgot all about it…Now where was I..?”  He is busy with his intellectual business, she performs the crucial domestic support function of a loyal and loving wife, the perfect pair.

In fact, Madame was an accomplished if unacknowledged researcher on her own, and her contribution to Monsieur’s work is now recognized as having been very important.  She, however, escaped death during the revolution.  Madison Smartt Bell has written a very nice short biography - Lavoisier in the Year One – the title of which nicely captures that good old apocalyptic spirit of revolution that I love so well.  He does a better job of explaining the unravelling of the weird and complicated pre-modern theories of chemistry demolished by Lavoisier than a mere novelist has a right to do, although he confided to me in an email that he did commit an error that no one but a chemist friend had noticed.


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