Splendor of Ruins resplendent in Allen
Obies despairing over the return of cold weather can seek refuge in The Splendor of Ruins, an exhibit at the Allen Art Museum that presents delightfully sunny pastoral scenes. The show focuses on seventeenth and eighteenth century French painters who depicted Greek, Roman and Egyptian architecture in combination with natural landscapes and human figures.
The show is presented in one room, with an additional wall cutting through the middle of the space. While many of the paintings appear dark in their tones, there are several vibrant pieces that stand out — mostly on the east and west walls, and in the northeast corner. The exhibit’s presentation is well done, with the exception of one piece by Jean-Baptiste Pater, hung in a large frame that casts a shadow on the painting below it, creating a large obstacle for the viewer.
What makes these paintings interesting is that they all present three interacting elements: the people in the scene, the organic landscape, and the ruins — remains of man-made structures from the past. The ruins often become backdrops to Biblical and mythological stories, adding another layer of life to these tales. The ruins represent the past that informs the present and the history with which figures constantly interact. Antique structures make the past present.
Laurent de la Hyre’s “Rest on the Flight to Egypt” presents an elaborate Roman ruin that, like many ruins in the exhibit, is painted in amazing detail. Mary and Joseph pause at this site on their way to Egypt, and Mary breastfeeds the baby Jesus. The inscription on the ruin soaring above the figures reads, “Regina,” the Latin word for queen, implying that Mary is a sacred figure. This painting is one example of how this group of French painters set Christian mythology alongside its roots. La Hyre also includes a Roman funerary monument in the background, setting the death and decay of one phase of history against new life and the birth of new religion with the baby Jesus.
Sebastian Bourdon’s “The Finding of Moses” presents another Biblical story, in which Pharoah’s daughter and her attendants pull baby Moses out of the Nile. The appeal of this piece lies in its vibrant colors, setting it apart from other paintings in the exhibit that may have darkened with age. The Pharoah’s daughter and her entourage are dressed in vivid, tropical colors. In the background is an imaginary Egyptian city with dark clouds moving in from the right side, foreshadowing the struggles of Exodus. Piles of bricks imply construction work and slavery.
Just as the ruins accentuate the storytelling by providing historical backdrops, the human figures accentuate the ruins by giving the viewer a sense of proportion. These proportions always show the monuments to be huge compared to the human figures, heightening the sense of grandeur and celebrating humanity’s colossal architectural achievements. In Hubert Robert’s “Roman Ruins,” an ancient archway and colonnade becomes a home for a family of figures that seem tiny compared to their shelter. One cannot help but wonder at these depictions of ruins, “How could people so small make structures so big?”
The paintings also show how ruins become integral parts of daily life for later generations. Hubert Robert’s “The Old Bridge” depicts the Ponte Salario, a Roman bridge built in the fourth century with a two-story tower added in the middle ages. There are people on three levels of the bridge: women wash clothes underneath it, hanging them on a line anchored to the underside of the structure; a worker croses the bridge with a cow; and a woman beckons to someone from the balcony of the upper story. In this way, a structure built for the simple means of getting people from one side of a waterway to the other also becomes a shelter and a workplace.
By presenting interactions between past and present, these paintings beckon
viewers to consider ruins we encounter today, what these structures represent
and how humans interact with structures around them. The Splendor of
Ruins is a romantic and charming distraction for rainy days. Hopefully soon
Oberlin students will be able to frolick around their own magnificent monuments.