Thursday, May 27, 2010


Artist Moved by the Grandeur of Ancient Ruins
Henry Fuseli

Robert Harbison reproduces the wash drawing above on page 109 of his magnificently meandering book, The Built, The Unbuilt, and the Unbuildable : In Pursuit of Architectural Meaning (Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 1991). The Fuseli illustration (done in 1778) appears in the chapter called Ruins. Harbison's perverse and fascinating take on the significance of ruins includes the following explication:

It is essentially our ignorance and not our knowledge which stirs us before the Greek fragments. Like the most moving Greek sculpture, now less than a shadow of its old self, the best classical sites are architecture without architects, where roles have been reversed, and landscape has reasserted itself over buildings. They are important not for helping us reconstruct past civilization but for assuring us there will always be something bigger than that. Without really leaving it behind, they show us that the human culture which constrains and fascinates us is not all there is in the world, and that one can transcend the human, simply by following art over the edge into dissolution.

Fuseli's Artist Moved by the Grandeur of Ancient Rome shows a figure in a state of utter dejection dwarfed and enclosed by selected bits of a colossus, which though larger and hence more powerful than he, is in its dismemberment equally ineffectual. The past is conceived as a figure or being, now reduced to abstraction and monstrosity. The artist is part and not part of the collapse: his posture echoes the cascading form familiar in many scenes of ruin, but for all his solidarity with the fallen giant he remains apart, neither buried nor assimilated, reveling now in a fit of melancholy which will pass.

This picture is a clear portrayal of ruin as a psychic state. The artist is smaller but his feelings dominate the scene. Even Rome is dwarfed by the intensity of our projections onto it, and everyone secretly feels when confronted by obliteration of the above-ground traces of his memories that it is mainly a personal loss. When a childhood scene is cleared to make way for something else or perhaps for nothing else, one's first thought is not of those who lived there last, one's successors, but of one's old sensations which are now a book abruptly closed. In Fuseli's picture the little node of consciousness validates the whole, creating a subject where otherwise there would be none.

The fragments in Fuseli's sketch are among the surviving parts of a gigantic statue of the Emperor Constantine. I hope to visit them next March in the Capitoline Museum in Rome, where I will probably be moved to veil my brow and shed an informed tear.