Clinton Snider: Painter Among the Ruins of Modernity

Clinton Snider, The Fall, 2009, oil on board, 12 x 12". © Clinton Snider | Susanne Hilberry Gallery

The ruin has had a prominent place in Western culture going back to at least the Renaissance. As Brian Dillon notes in his Cabinet essay “Fragments from a History of the Ruin,” in Quattrocento Italy the ruin functioned as an indexical sign of classical culture, a trace of the Elysium that was lost with the fall of Rome and left to lie in pieces during the long night of the Dark Ages, legible only to those who had access to the redoubts of preserved knowledge. Early Renaissance paintings of St. Jerome, for example (see these works by Ercole de Roberti, 1470, and Giovanni Bellini, 1480/90), often depict the Great Doctor of the Church reading amidst a landscape of ruins, fasting, meditating, and otherwise preparing himself for the task of translating the Bible into Latin.

For the Romantics, the ruin was a symbol of artistic creation, a marker of irrepressible natural genius pushing through the strictures of academic form. Western civilization’s vestige of the  Noble Savage, the artist was seen to possess intuitive knowledge that wells up solely from within. Through what Raymond Williams terms “the green language” — reveries on the natural in words, images, and sounds — Romantics sought to reverse the disenchantment of the world that came at the hands of industrial modernity, and in Romantic paintings, such as those of Caspar David Friedrich, the ruin serves as a harbinger of what is to become of its edifices.

Sociologist Georg Simmel presents a similar idea in his 1911 essay “The Ruin”:

“According to its cosmic order, the hierarchy of nature and spirit usually shows nature as the substructure, so to speak, the raw material, or semi-finished product; the spirit, as the definitely formative and crowning element. The ruin reverses this order.”

For Simmel, the ruin is a symbol of the dissolution of moral codes and social structures, of estrangement and alienation, key aspects of the modern urban condition under capitalism. It’s a theme . . .

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