Life Amid Ruins

In Status Anxiety — his part philosophically-minded self-help book, part social history — Alain de Botton describes two fashions that were popular in the art world during the 17th and 18th century respectively.  The first, vanitas art, took its name from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes in which it is written, “Vanity of vanity, all is vanity.”  Vanitas art which flourished especially in the Netherlands, and also in Paris, was, as the biblical citation implies, concerned with life’s fleeting nature.  As de Botton describes them,

Each still-life featured a table or sideboard on which was arranged a contrasting muddle of objects.  There might be flowers, coins, a guitar or mandolin, chess pieces, a book of verse, a laurel wreath or wine bottle: symbols of frivolity and temporal glory.  And somewhere among these would be set the two great symbols of death and the brevity of life:  a skull and an hourglass.

A bit morbid we might think, but as de Botton explains,

The purpose of such works was not to send their viewers into a depression over the vanity of all things; rather, it was to embolden them to find fault with particular aspects of their own experience, while at the same time attending more closely to the virtues of love, goodness, sincerity, humility and kindness.

Okay, still a bit morbid you might be thinking, but fascinating nonetheless.  Here is the first of two examples provided in Status Anxiety:

Philippe de Champaigne, circa 1671

Here is the second example:

Simon Renard de Saint-Andre, circa 1662

And here are a few others from among the numerous examples one can find online:

Edwart Collier, 1640
Pieter Boel, 1663
Adam Bernaert, circa 1665
Edwart Collier, 1690

Less morbid and more nostalgic, the second art fashion de Botton examines is the 18th and 19th century fascination with ruins.  This fascination was no doubt inspired in part by the unearthing of Pompeii’s sister city, Herculaneum, in 1738.  The most intriguing subset of these paintings of ancient ruins, however, were those paintings that imagined not the past in ruins, but the future.  “A number of artists,” according to de Botton, “have similarly delighted in depicting their own civilization in a tattered future form, as a warning to, and reprisal against, the pompous guardians of the age.”  Consider these the antecedents of the classic Hollywood trope in which some famous city and its monuments lies in ruins — think Planet of the Apes and the Statue of Liberty.

Status Anxiety provides three examples these future ruins.  The first depicts the Louvre in ruins:

Hubert Robert, Imaginary View of the Grande Gallerie of the Louvre in Ruins, 1796

The second depicts the ruins of the Bank of London:

Joseph Gandy, View of the Rotunda of the Bank of England in Ruins, 1798

And the third, from a later period, depicts the city of London in ruins being sketched by a man from New Zealand, “the country that in Dore’s day symbolized the future,” in much the same way that Englishmen on their Grand Tours would sketch the ruins of Athens or Rome.

Gustav Dore, The New Zealander, 1871

Finally, both of these art fashions suggested to my mind Nicolas Poussin’s Et in Arcadia ego from 1637-1638:

Nicolas Poussin, Et in Arcadia ego, 1637-38

Here, shepherds stumble upon some ancient tomb in which they read the inscription, Et in Arcadia ego.  There has been some debate about the precise way the phrase should be taken.  It may be read as the voice of death personified saying “even in Arcadia I exist,” or it may mean “the person buried in this tomb lived in Arcadia.”  In either case the moral is clear.  Death comes for the living.  It is a memento mori, a reminder of death (note the appearance of that phrase in the last piece of vanitas art above).

Admittedly, these are not the most uplifting of reflections.  However, de Botton’s point and the point of the artists who painted these works strikes me as sound:  we make a better go of the present if we live with the kind of perspective engendered by these works of art.  Our tendency to ignore our mortality and our refusal to acknowledge the limitations of a single human life may be animating much of our discontent and alienation.  Perhaps.  Certainly there is some wisdom here we may tap into.  This is pure conjecture, of course, but I wonder how many, having contemplated Gandy’s paiting, would have found the phrase “too big too fail” plausible?  Might we not, with a renewed sense of our mortality, reorder some of our priorities bringing into sharper focus the more meaningful elements of life?

It is also interesting to consider that not only do we have few contemporary equivalents of the kind of art work we’ve considered, but neither do we have any actual ruins in our midst.  America seems uniquely prepared to have been a country without a sense of the past.  Not only are we an infant society by historical standards, but even the ancient inhabitants of our lands, unlike those further south, left no monumental architecture, no tokens of antiquity.  Those of us who live in suburbia may go days without casting our eyes on anything older than twenty years.  We have been a forward looking society whose symbolic currency has not been — could not have been — ruins of the past, but rather the Frontier with its accent on the future and what may be.

I would not call into question the whole of this cultural sensibility, but perhaps we could have used just a few ruins.

11 thoughts on “Life Amid Ruins

  1. This is my favorite of your always excellent posts, Michael.

    I’m studying for a certificate in Pastoral Thanatology, so I find the subject of mortality (in all its forms) enlivening rather than depressing precisely for the reason you mention: it brings “into sharper focus the more meaningful elements of life.”

    A fascinating subject framed in the context of art history! Just lovely.

  2. Wonderful description and depictions of vanitas art. One of my favorite takes on the “ruins” theme is from Giovanni Panini in his pendant paintings, Modern Rome and Ancient Rome — it’s as if Panini is pre-judging which ruins will be noteworthy.

    Thanks for a great post.


  3. Great argument and maybe we’re seeing a cultural shift? A number of photographers, both in the fine art and documentary mode, have been looking at the ruins in our midst for a few years now: Joel Meyerowitz at the World Trade Center, Andrew Moore in Detroit, Lori Nix in, well, her imagination, and a slew of people photographing in foreclosed neighborhoods (David H. Wells, Todd Hido, among others). I’ve focused on the idea of the sublime in most of these works, but the tone of elegy is unmistakable.

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