Updated: Nov 26, 2019
"The romantics of every period have been excited by those scenes of violation (...) Generalising the picture, they have found a more subtly indecent spectacle in the landscape with ruins, where the civilized, geometric stone is stifled beneath the embrace of wild vegetation. When your good romantic catches sight of a building, the first thing his eyes seek is the yellow hedge-mustard on cornice and roof. (...) It would be stupid to laugh at the romantic. The romantic also is in the right. Under these innocently perverse images there lies an immense, ever-present problem: that of the relations between civilization and what lies behind it – Nature, between the rational and the cosmic." - so diagnoses José Ortega y Gasset in his book "The Revolt of the Masses" the condition of romantic's mind, or perhaps, to use a term that a romantic would favour - of the romantic's heart. It is also a diagnosis that is difficult to deny. Before I dive into exploration of this phenomenon, I shall dedicate a couple of sentences to my personal experience of this sentiment. I have always inclined towards the romantic and found position of a cynic to be pitiful. I never had a desire to become a photographer but on occasion, like many of us, I would take a photograph of something that caught my attention, more as a way of freezing the moment rather than an ambition of perfecting my technique. It was not rarely, that "the yellow hedge-mustard on cornice and roof" was the very thing that caught my attention. I have profoundly enjoyed taking photos of roses wrapped around the concrete, ugly garages and fences, of vines taking over abandoned factories, water and oxidation turning into rust the complex, once powerful industrial structures, iron and steel. There was a poetic and sublime moment in seeing the "geometric stone stifled beneath the embrace of wild vegetation" but it was not sentimentalism that made it alluring - for I have always found sentimentalism to be a slightly vulgar imitation of a true awe and emotion. It was neither a symptom of my tiredness of the urban life, out of which images of noble savage and romanticised ideas of gentle and harmonious nature would appear. It was not an image of gentle and declawed nature, as we often, in our current age love to portray it, but rather an image of its brutality, of wilderness, of lack of care for anything but its own expansion. It was a realisation that if it would do the same to my body, where I at its mercy. It was also a realisation, like Ortega y Gasset correctly asserts, of that which is behind civilization and our human construction, a realisation that it is fragile and that a jungle, an earthquake, a flood is never too far away.
Romanticism, Ruins, Sublime and Nature
Romanticism can be understood as the specific epoch in eighteenth century, an artistic movement which appeared in different places, or it can be understood as a sentiment, attitude, aspiration that can be observed throughout different epochs and forms. Three are the main terms, which follow the evolution of that which constitutes the meaning of the word "Romantic". In seventeenth century, "Romantic" came to be synonymous with the Italian term "romanzesco". It was a pejorative term that meant "like the old romances". In eighteenth century, the term that dominated was "Romanesque" and its meaning was "imaginative", "picturesque". The cycle was closed by German Romantics who used the term "Romantisch". This richer term meant all that was unknown, magical, distant, irrational and sublime. But what was actually Romantic, with capital "R" were not those things or sentiments on their own, but rather the aspiration ("Sehnsucht") towards them. Taking the German definition, Romantic sentiment, aspiration or beauty can be found in Sappho, Shakespeare, Tasso, Baudelaire and others. Beauty of ruins and the love of ruins can be understood as this Sehnsucht that goes beyond specific epoch. Capriccio art of Renaissance and Baroque often expressed the beauty of ruins. Neoclassicists, with their nostalgia for a purer, more natural form, developed their own appreciation of ruins. To see beauty in ruins, for Neoclassicists was to see beauty of ancient civilizations, the purity and harmony of their art and lines. The nostalgia for the pure and ancient inspired those such as Canova, to try to reintroduce those principles in their art. The revival of Gothic architecture in the late eighteenth century, however, did not pride itself in its purity, but it did lead to a renewed taste for ruins. This time it was an appreciation for the formless, the irregular, the incomplete, the visible traces of time on them, the vegetation that embraces them and their melancholic, eerie majesty. What they had in common was that very often, the depiction of ruins was to reveal the irretrievably of everything that time swallows - be it great ancient civilizations and empires or human life itself. Even in twenty-first century, the taste for ruins has not yielded. Many of us have probably have had a chance to see photographs by Mathias Mahling or Nicola Bertellotti on social media - very often with thousands of clicks accompanying them. What it is, then, that across centuries and ages, makes humans want to look at images of ruins, at images of vegetation conquering what once, some tired human hands had made? The answer to that question may be hiding in the idea of Sublime.
Sublime is, in the simplest sense, a consequence, an effect the art makes on our inner being. It is that which arises, within a person when they listen to a beautiful piece of music, see a beautiful painting or read a beautiful poem or piece of literature. Sublime is experience and expression of elevated, dignified and noble passions. The experience of Sublime is communication between the creator and the listener, perceiver or reader. The first to introduce the idea of Sublime was Pseudo-Lognginus in the first century AD. It took until mid-eighteenth century for this concept to be entertained again. The revival of the interest in the concept of Sublime brought about its broadening and expansion - art was not the only place to experience the sublime, nature could also be the source of it. This is relevant in the context of ruins and vegetation.
"Beauty is indeed an expression of freedom, but not of the freedom that raises us above the power of nature to release us from all physical influences; it is rather the expression of that freedom we enjoy as men within nature. We feel free in the presence of Beauty because our sensible instincts are in harmony with the law of reason, for here the spirit acts as if untramelled by no laws other than its own. The sense of the Sublime is a mixed emotion. It is composed of a sense of sorrow whose extreme expression is manifested as a shudder, and a feeling of joy that can mount to rapturous enthusiasm, and while it is not actually pleasure, refined souls prefer it by far to all pleasure. This combination of two contradictory perceptions in a single feeling is irrefutable proof of our moral independence. For, as it is quite impossible for the same object to be related to us in two different ways, it therefore follows that we are related to the object in two different ways; and as a consequence, two opposed natures must be united in us, each of which deals with the perception of the object in a diametrically opposed manner. Through the sense of the Sublime, therefore, we discover that our state of mind is not necessarily determined by the state of our sensible perceptions, that the laws of nature are not necessarily our own, and that we possess an autonomous principle that is independent of all sensible emotions. The Sublime object is kind of duality. Either we refer it to our intellectual capacities, only to be vanquished in our attempts to form an image and a concept of it; or we refer it to our vital energy and consider it as power against which our own vanishes away." - "On the Sublime", Friedrich Schiller
Schiller's ideas on Beauty and Sublime in nature echo Kant's ideas about it. Experience of Beauty, for Kant, is a detached experience - it is enjoyment, pleasure of the object as a synthesis of certain mathematical, symmetrical rule. Experience of Beauty is purely intellectual, Kant would argue, but the experience of Sublime is where intellect and imagination find a synthesis. Kant also recognizes two types of Sublime - mathematical and dynamic. When we experience mathematical Sublime we are faced with experience that is beyond the grasp of our senses, and we imagine more than that which we can see with an eye. This experience, sometimes, is beyond the imagination itself. Imagination fails to narrow it down to a single experience or a single intuitive hunch. The result of this is a slightly frightening, negative pleasure in which we realise the vastness of our own subjectivities. We experience nostalgia for something that we cannot be sure exists outside of the realms of our imagination. Dynamic Sublime is not experience of vastness but experience of power. It is the experience which I described at the beginning of this text - the brutality and infinite extension. In the experience of dynamic Sublime, our sensible self feels small and humiliated, there is a feeling of unease, but pleasure that is taken in that feeling of unease is the sense of our own, moral, conscious selves, who so often, are capable of domesticating the wilderness. The perfect example of mathematical sublime is experience of starlit night sky and the perfect example of dynamic sublime, according to Kant is storm. "Bold, overhanging, and, as it were, threatening rocks, thunderclouds piled up the vault of heaven, borne along with flashes and peals... (...) But, provided our own position is secure, their aspect is all the more attractive for its fearfulness, as we readily call these objects sublime, because they raise the forces of the soul above the height of vulgar commonplace, and discover within us a power of resistance of quite another kind, which gives us courage to be able to measure ourselves against the seeming omnipotence of nature." - "The Critique of Judgement", Immanuel Kant
The experience of Sublime is the dawn of the defeat of duality, the experience of seemingly opposite polarities, the experience of opposing truths about the existence of human beings. In the experience of Sublime, the vast and powerful nature is the destroyer, the death of humanity and that which humanity creates, and at the same time, in the experience of sublime, human is the nature's destroyer, its domesticator, the one who uses it to his own advantage. It is the experience of human being as both a part of nature and something above it, beyond it. Perhaps there lies our peculiar taste for ruins and vegetation that covers them. Glancing at an image, a painting of a majestic ruin taken by vines and roses, reminds us of both fragility of those structures but also their strength, fragility of humanity but also humanity's strength. It is the experience of both limitations and possibilities. Even when it embraces a large abbey, nature will need hundreds, thousands of years to have every trace of it disappear, and a human being could burn entire forests in couple of hours. An earthquake may demolish a city in couple of seconds, but ruins that stay after it are a reminder of humans who lived there. Even if every city's inhabitant dies, the ruins stay to speak of them. The people of Pompeii have died but the ruins of Pompeii have not.
Links "The Revolt of the Masses", José Ortega y Gasset "The Critique of Judgment", Immanuel Kant "On the Sublime", Friedrich Schiller "On Beauty", Umberto Eco "Nostalghia", Andrei Tarkovsky Nicola Bertellotti Photography Mathias Mahling Photography Abandoned After Dark Photography