One question hovering over the Shoto Museum exhibition “Beyond the End: Ruins in Art History” is “What is beauty?”

The paintings and prints in the show, gathered from museum collections around Japan, feature real and imagined scenes of decline. One of the first images that visitors will see, for example, is the 1942 painting “Ruins (From the Last Judgement)” by Tatsuoki Nambata (1905-97). It’s a hellish vision of tormented semi-defined human figures, with the Colosseum of Rome burning in the background. The painting stands out as being horrific and angst-ridden in comparison with other images in the exhibition, which range from the bathetic, to the ambiguous and fanciful. “Beautiful” might be an odd term to use for such images.

There are several etchings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-78). A unique interpreter of ruins, Piranesi used the architectural remains of Roman antiquity as a starting point for his own uncanny and elaborate fantasies of a world after civilization. Populated by goats, goatherds and theatrically gesturing indigents, who are dotted around the landscapes seemingly oblivious to their monumental nature, Piranesi’s mixture of fancy and detailed documentation could, in our age, be described as foreshadowing the hyperreal.

The inclusion of several large works by contemporary artists Motoda Hisaharu and Minoru Nomata, depicting post-apocalyptic Tokyo, devoid of life and overrun by vegetation, evidence Piranesi’s continuing legacy and power to intrigue. Nomata’s 2013 canvas “Listen to the Tales” directly references Piranesi’s 1756 etching “Ancient Intersection of the Via Appia and the Via Ardeatina,” inserting a few statues of Akita dogs to stand in for the bas-relief of the Roman foundation myth scene of Romulus and Remus suckling at the teats of a she-wolf. Hisaharu’s black-and-white photo-realistic lithographs of a future derelict Shibuya crossing are reminiscent of photographer Ryuji Miyamoto’s images of Kobe after the Great Hanshin Earthquake, and the derelict remains of the 1970 Osaka Expo site.

Though these contemporary works take their fanciful invention from Piranesi, their execution is more similar in ambience to prints by 18th-century English artists. Where Piranesi’s works seem to plumb the subconscious, mixing archetypes and unarticulated desires and fears, the more ascetically composed works by John Sell Cotman (1782-1842) and Thomas Girtin (1775-1802) are quasi-pastoral studies that exude a wistful tranquillity, rather than a sense of dread. These images, both the contemporary Japanese, and the 18th-century English prints, are perhaps exemplary of the “picturesque” in the meaning originally espoused by Reverend William Gilpin (1724-1804); that is to say they have a kind of visual charm qualitatively distinct from the beautiful or the sublime.

In terms of exploring ruins as dark fantasy or symbolic of psychological disturbance, the successors of Piranesi are the surrealists. Several works by Paul Delvaux (1897-1994) that juxtapose statuesque female figures among fragments of Greco-Roman architecture appear with pre-World War II Japanese surrealist works by Kyuzaburo Ito (1906-77), Noboru Kitawaki (1901-51) and Hamao Hamada (1915-94).

“Beyond the End: Ruins in Art History” is not an exhibition of world-renowned works; but as a focused look at how the subject of ruins migrated to Japan after the “ruin craze” of 17th-century European art, it raises many challenging questions about the relationship between art, beauty, cultural memory and disaster.

“Beyond the End: Ruins in Art History” at the Shoto Museum of Art runs until Jan. 31; ¥500. For more information, visit www.shoto-museum.jp/en.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.