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Appetite for destruction: from Turner to Tacita Dean, artists have long been drawn to ruins

A new exhibition surveys artistic visions of decay.

Turner’s The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey

Ruins are as much about the future as they are about the past. Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire and the Colosseum in Rome are not simply buildings: they are memento mori. As the encyclopédiste Denis Diderot noted in 1767: “The ideas ruins evoke in me are grand. Everything comes to nothing, everything perishes, everything passes, only the world remains, only time endures.” Diderot was not alone. What he was suffering from – a widespread condition for which there is still no cure – is what the Germans called Ruinenlust.

The melancholy allure of decay has always struck artists particularly hard. With the appearance in the mid-18th century of the theory of the picturesque and the sublime in the writings of Edmund Burke and William Gilpin, artists were encouraged to give in to it. “Ruin Lust” at Tate Britain is a fascinating and provocative examination of this strand in British art over the past 250 years.

In 1794, four years before Wordsworth composed his lines about the place, Turner stood in Tintern Abbey and painted a delicate and detailed watercolour showing a pair of Georgian tourists dwarfed by its crumbling arches and weed-sprouting tracery. He was part of a fad; the cream of watercolourists – Francis Towne, John Sell Cotman and Samuel Prout among them – cluttered toppling monastic ruins around the country, luxuriating in their silhouettes and poetic atmosphere. By the time Constable came to depict the stump of Hadleigh Castle (in 1828-29), he used paint so thick and jagged that it had the texture of aged stone.

So pervasive was the lure of ruins that in 1830 John Soane had the extraordinary idea of commissioning Joseph Gandy to paint his newly completed Bank of England as Roman remains. The picture, a metaphor of financial and physical collapse, shows Soane’s building as future archaeologists might find it – roofless, tumble-walled, a maze of decrepit rooms in which the purse strings of the British empire were once held.

Forty years later a Frenchman, Gustave Doré, expanded Gandy’s image of post-imperial decline: The New Zealander shows a visitor from the far side of the world sitting on the banks of a clogged and drying Thames, surveying the broken wharves of the city that cast a broken outline against the sky and the dome of St Paul’s decapitated and cracked like a boiled egg. Shelley’s Ozymandias has been brought to England from the desert.

Armstrong’s Coggeshall Church

James Boswell gave the idea a sinister twist in 1933 in a series of lithographs called The Fall of London, a product of the morbid interwar age. In these pictures, which eerily prefigure the Blitz, not only have London’s buildings been destroyed but they are overrun by a feral underclass of rapists, looters and marauders. Tiny figures scuttle in the rubble and a dead woman’s bare legs give a ghoulish flash of white in the dark. As the solidity of structures has given way, so, too, has the armature of society.

When the war did come, the destruction was too great for the picturesque mindset to survive. The likes of Graham Sutherland and John Piper documented the results of bombs and fire and responded to Rose Macaulay’s suggestion that Ruinenlust had come “full circle: we have had our fill”. It is perhaps no coincidence that John Armstrong’s small painting of the bombed tower of Coggeshall Church in Essex (1940), with the wooden structure of the bell tower ripped open to the skies, resembles a medical illustration of the human body with the skin peeled back to reveal the organs beneath.

The imminence of destruction learned in the 1940s has continued to affect numerous contemporary artists. For example, the exhibition includes Tacita Dean’s film Kodak. Having discovered in 2006 that the company was about to stop producing standard 16mm film, she bought some of the last stock and shot the production process at the company factory in Chalon-sur-Saône. Her film of the plant’s echoing linoleum corridors, pulsating machinery and antiquated circuit boards doubles as a requiem for a fast-disappearing industrial world.

Jane and Louise Wilson’s Azeville

Rachel Whiteread’s similarly elegiac sequence of photographs of the demolition of the tower blocks on Clapton Park Estate in east London is both an acknowledgement of the speed of urban decline (the buildings being blown up are relatively new, part of the postwar reconstruction of London) and a knowing reference to the melodramatic apocalyptic paintings of John Martin from the early 19th century. If Martin’s livid red panorama The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum of 1822, which opens the exhibition, is a lament for the end of a grand civilisation, Whiteread comments instead on the contemporary culture of obsolescence. The poignancy of her unlovely flats reduced to dust is muted; the past, she suggests, did better ruins than we can manage.

Webster in The Duchess of Malfi said of ruins: “We never tread upon them but we set/Our foot upon some reverend history.” This exhibition, drawn largely from the
Tate’s holdings (part of a contemporary trend to use existing resources in an imaginative way) vividly demonstrates that art has its own parallel history of building new work from the rubble of the old.

“Ruin Lust” runs until 18 May

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Russia's Revenge

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit