Zoltan Somhegyi's Reviewing the Past: The Presence of Ruins (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020) takes the reader on a captivating journey through the phenomenon of ruins. It is a remarkable achievement that, I believe, only someone like Somhegyi--a philosophical aesthetician as well as an art historian, and one who has studied ruins on a global scale--could pull off so brilliantly.
Zoltán Somhegyi’s new book [provides] readers with a sophisticated, knowledgeable and at the same time absolutely readable perspective on the controversial topic of our relationship with the past and how we should deal with the past’s physical remnants, namely, ruins.
Somhegyi goes beyond traditional representations of the subject in Romantic aesthetics to embrace the visual implications of ruination in a wide-range of non-conventional contexts. The author’s sensitivity, based on many years of travelling throughout Europe and a long stay in the Middle East, brings immediacy and richness of perception to his discussions of the various types of ruins. His survey covers examples ranging from the Greek-Roman world and Byzantium to present-day decaying buildings like abandoned shopping malls and industrial sites, including instances of ruin depiction in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Flemish and Italian painting, as well as in contemporary media such as conceptual art and photography.
The ruin is an enigma that may also provide aesthetic experience, and when wandering among ruins everyone has the right and the opportunity to find their own, subjective reconstruction: how could it have been originally, how to imagine what is now lost. This game of logic based on the strength of imagination will, however, become impossible if the destruction was caused by a terrorist attack or if there is a reconstruction that suggests that “only this form of completion” is correct. Zoltán Somhegyi’s book shows that the childhood passion of its author has fortunately remained, the optimistic joy, however, is a thing of the past. Undoubtedly, it is an experience shared by many of us, by the present reviewer for sure.
(This review was originally published in Hungarian.)
Overall, Somhegyi displays commanding knowledge of his subject matter, approaching the monumental topic from interesting and sometimes surprising angles. One could perhaps hope for even more direct engagement with the ruined edifices themselves in addition to their artistic representations, but what Somhegyi does present is impressive and generally convincing. The title of the final chapter, ‘Time Transformed into Space’, is borrowed from a 2008 novel by Orhan Pamuk referring to museums as places of remembrance (219). And although the chapter centres on museums, one could imagine applying the phrase to many of the edifices discussed in this well-written and fascinating book.