Reviewed | Dubin’s ‘Futures and Ruins’

Posted in books, Member News, reviews by Editor on August 11, 2012

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Nina L. Dubin, Futures and Ruins: Eighteenth-Century Paris and the Art of Hubert Robert (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2010), 210 pages, ISBN: 9781606060230, $50.

Reviewed by Frédérique Baumgartner, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, Columbia University; posted 27 July 2012.

In an article entitled “Les musées ne sont pas à vendre” (“Museums Are Not For Sale”) published on December 12, 2006, in the daily French paper ‘Le Monde’, the art historians Françoise Cachin, Jean Clair, and Roland Recht strongly denounced the increasing commercialization of the national patrimony, epitomized by the Louvre’s plan to rent out part of its collection to a branch established in Abu Dhabi. The authors warned the French administration against the incoherence of its cultural policy: claiming to protect the nation’s artistic treasures, while at the same time using those treasures as commodities.

The controversy over the Louvre Abu Dhabi is one of the many contemporary resonances that Nina Dubin’s book, ‘Futures and Ruins: Eighteenth-Century Paris and the Art of Hubert Robert’, holds for its reader. A meticulously researched study examining Robert’s paintings of Parisian ruins in light of the new financial interests and related economic and cultural risks that defined the city’s urban and patrimonial policies in the 1770s–1790s, ‘Futures and Ruins’ will prompt readers to consider the origins of the economic and cultural precariousness of today’s world. As such, the book is both historically stimulating and morally engaging.

At the center of ‘Futures and Ruins’ lies the following historical claim: in the course of the eighteenth century, Paris, in the grip of the forces of early capitalism, became the terrain of intense real estate speculation. It was enabled by the introduction of paper money in 1716, as the greater capacity for circulation of paper money precipitated transactions and engendered prospects of hastily accumulated wealth. At the same time, the reliance of the real estate market on the expansion of credit raised the specter of bankruptcy. As Dubin underscores, in agreement with the historian Michael Sonenscher, the nature of credit was characterized by “the ease with which it enabled economic prosperity, while at the same time catalyzing the potential for expansive debt” (Michael Sonenscher, ‘Before the Deluge: Public Debt, Inequality, and the Intellectual Origins of the French Revolution‘, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007, 91).

These economic phenomena, Dubin argues, found their aesthetic counterpart in pictures of ruins—a genre in which Robert (1733–1808), received as Peintre d’architecture at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1776, excelled. . .

The full review is available here» (CAA membership required)

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