The Sublime in Art - History and Concepts
Boileau and Longinus - On the Sublime (1674)
The concept of the sublime can be traced as far back as the Italian Renaissance. Masaccio and Andrea Mantegna's representations of Christ dead and dying, as well as Raphael's drawings and studies of skulls, remind us of the inevitability of death and the unknown - key themes of the sublime. Painter and theorist Jonathan Richardson wrote extensively about the sublime and its example in Michelangelo and the Baroque painter Anthony van Dyck in his An Essay on the Theory of Painting (1715).
But it was not until the Romantic period that the sublime as an aesthetic concept really took hold across Europe. It began with the French author Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux's 17th-century translation of Peri Hypsous (On The Sublime), a work of literary criticism by the Greek Longinus dating back to the 1st century CE. Here, Longinus argues that the orator should strive to inspire passion and move his listener not just to persuade him. Concerned mostly with language, Longinus does write briefly about the visual sublime in both nature and human-made objects; great size and variety can induce the feeling of the sublime in his estimation. In his own treatise on aesthetics, Boileau wrote of the sublime, "The sublime is not strictly speaking something which is proven or demonstrated, but a marvel, which seizes one, strikes one, and makes one feel."
The Romantic Sublime and A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, by Edmund Burke (1757)
In 1757, the philosopher Edmund Burke wrote the first major work on the sublime, in which he sought to scientifically investigate human passions. As a philosophical Empiricist, Burke grounded his argument in sensory experience, and he walks through various feelings, including the pleasurable, the beautiful, and the sublime. For Burke, pleasure was not as strong a feeling as pain, and he proposed that the sublime, which he understood to be our strongest passion, was rooted in fear, particularly the terror brought on by the fear of death. Burke wrote, "The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully is astonishment, and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror."
Kant's Critique of Judgment (1790)
Similarly, German philosopher Immanuel Kant explored the individual's response to the sublime, placing the origin of the experience within the human psyche. In his Critique of Judgment. Kant proposed two types of sublimity: the mathematical and the dynamical. With the mathematical sublime, one is faced with the magnitude of nature, and one's imagination cannot adequately comprehend the vastness. Kant argues, though, that our faculty of reason kicks in and allows us to comprehend the sense of infinity before us; the feeling of the mathematical sublime, then, is the feeling of reason's superiority over nature and our imagination. The dynamical sublime is also a feeling of reason's superiority to nature, but via a different avenue. Kant explained, "[T]he irresistibility of [nature's] power certainly makes us, considered as natural beings, recognize our physical powerlessness, but at the same time it reveals a capacity for judging ourselves as independent of nature and a superiority over nature...whereby the humanity in our person remains undemeaned even though the human being must submit to that dominion." In both experiences of the sublime, Kant wrote of an "agitation" that one feels; it makes the soul feel shaken, as opposed to the calm feeling engendered by a work of beauty. The sublime also causes a feeling of displeasure, as Kant explained, "arising from the inadequacy of imagination in the aesthetic estimation of magnitude to attain to its estimation of reason...." Kant's notions of the sublime were not much taken up by philosophers, but they held great importance for later literature and aesthetic theory.
The European Romantics
According to art historian Beat Wyss, Kant's sublime, which rests on our relation with nature and our rational response to it, was translated into German Romanticism as a form of "art religion." Here, was the dawn of an era in which "the ego and the world diverged". Romantic artists would often use their experiences of nature or natural events to convey the experience of the sublime. Kant's countryman, Caspar David Friedrich's paintings of mist, fog, and darkness sought to capture an experience of the infinite, creating an overwhelming sense of emptiness. Friedrich's images of lone figures against powerful and dramatic skies had a wide-reaching influence and made him an icon of Romantic Painting. In France around the same time, Eugène Delacroix and Théodore Géricault explored the sublime through violent and horrific subjects such as suicide, massacres, shipwrecks, and guillotined heads. Their paintings were often massive in scale, enveloped the viewer, and the frequent presence of a cacophony of varied details overwhelmed the viewer's senses.
British Landscape Painting and French Barbizon School
As travelers headed into wilderness such as the French and Swiss Alps, the Snowdonia mountains, and other natural regions to experience the sublime, British Landscape painters responded to the desire for thrill and awe. John Constable presented dramatic English landscapes that were designed to evoke awe and wonder in the viewer while his contemporary and rival J. M. W. Turner produced powerful seascapes, views of the Thames river, and captivating skies that explored the ephemerality of man's efforts in the face of nature. Indeed Turner has been widely recognized as one of the most successful of Romantic painters in capturing the aesthetic of the sublime as outlined by Burke and Kant.
In France, a more middle-of-the-road approach was explored by the Barbizon School, which included Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Théodore Rousseau, and Jean-François Millet. These painters sought to convey a sense of serenity, or what was termed the "contemplative sublime," in landscape painting. Here artists turned to nature painting as an antidote to the ills of modern industrialization, rather than as a powerful investigation into the human condition.
The Hudson River School
Inspired by Turner and his contemporaries, artists such as Thomas Moran and Thomas Cole found the sublime in the untouched lands of North America, including in the Yosemite Valley, the Grand Canyon, the Rocky Mountains, and reflected it on vast canvases that expressed scale and splendor. Artists wanted to produce work that translated the awe, terror, boundlessness, and divinity experienced at these dramatic spots that many Americans had not seen in person. Many of the artists who came to be known as the Hudson River School (named after the houses many of them built on the river in upstate New York) worked in the Studio Building on New York's West Tenth Street, the first such artists' space of the time in the city. After traveling the country and the countryside and experiencing the richness of the American landscape, Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Edwin Church, and later Asher B. Durand, explored notions of the sublime at a time during westward expansion, and their painted visions came to define what America looked like in the minds of many of its East Coast citizenry.
In the 1870s and 1890s, pioneering photographers were employed by the government and private companies to capture images of the Western landscape, including Yosemite and Yellowstone. The photographs taken of Yosemite by Carleton Watkins influenced the U.S. Congress to make it a national park. Later photographers such as Minor White and Ansel Adams continued the legacy of dramatic landscape photography that captured the imaginations of Americans.
The Death of the Sublime
By 1886 the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche declared the Sublime "out of date" and Victorian artists returned to beauty as their muse. By the turn of the century, the United States had moved on too, falling in love instead with French Impressionism and modernism. Adding to its demise as an influential aesthetic theory, notions of the sublime were exploited by totalitarian regimes in the 1930s. Caspar David Friedrich's work was co-opted by the Nazis and twisted into an exemplar of German nationalism. Hitler's chief architect Albert Speer created Cathedrals of Light. In the absence of a concrete stadium, Speer beamed 152 anti-aircraft searchlights into the night sky to form a wall of vertical lights around the audiences of the Nuremberg rallies. The effect was dazzling and footage was subsequently documented in Nazi propaganda films. The overtly political use of the sublime made subsequent artists reluctant to engage the aesthetic theory in their works.
The Age of Abstract Expressionism
After World War II, artists again began to explore sublime feelings of transcendence and exaltation as a way to recuperate from the war's atrocities. The Abstract Expressionists in North America and Europe's innovative Yves Klein, the sculpture of Alberto Giacometti, and the poems and paintings of Henri Michaux all re-engaged the topic.
In his 1948 essay "The Sublime is Now," Barnett Newman swore off the European artists' interest in beauty and argued that artists needed to create transcendent works that would induce a spiritual experience. He wrote, "We are reasserting man's natural desire for the exalted." Fellow artists Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still also wanted to evoke a quasi-religious transcendent experience in those viewing their works.
The eminent art historian Robert Rosenblum caused a stir when he coined the term the "abstract sublime" in reference to modern American painting. He used it to describe a sense of vastness and solitude conveyed by works of Abstract Expressionists, relating them back to their ancestors in Romantic painting. He developed the ideas in his influential book Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko (1975). Writing in 1961, Rosenblum said, "In its heroic search for a private myth to embody the sublime power of the supernatural, the art of Still, Rothko, Pollock and Newman should remind us once more that the disturbing heritage of the Romantics has not yet been exhausted."
Concepts and Styles
Religion and Transcendence
The sublime and the religious have been linked as far back Roman times, and writers praised Renaissance artists that moved the viewer beyond an everyday appreciation of religious works. Jonathan Richardson described Raphael's Sistine Chapel tapestries as the most sublime examples of art, while he also paid tribute to the "holy Dove with a vast Heaven where are innumerable angels adoring, rejoicing" in Federico Zuccaro's The Annunciation with Prophets and Music-making Angels (1572). The vastness and terror of nature explored by Romantic painters often had religious undertones - for example, Caspar David Friedrich painted monks and funereal scenes and was greatly influenced in his thinking by a Lutheran minister.
Early 20th-century art took the sublime in a new direction, as artists experimented with abstraction to provide an experience of transcendence. Kazimir Malevich famously hung his Black Square (1913) in the corner of the room when it was first displayed. As this was traditionally the site of the orthodox icon in a Russian home, Malevich suggested the black square as a godlike presence. Although kept hidden away for many years, the Swedish Hilma af Klint produced a huge body of abstract work, known as The Paintings for the Temple, which she hoped would provide an experience of enlightenment for those who viewed them.
Later, Abstract Expressionists would try to evoke a spiritual feeling through their work. Robert Rosenblum, writing in 1961, described a fan admiring Clyfford Still works at New York's Albright Art Gallery. "It's like a religious experience!" he told Rosenblum. Likewise, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman's Color Field Paintings attempted to create a quasi-religious feeling for a post-religious world.
Nature was a key motif for the sublime in Romantic art; misty skies, tempestuous seas, vast gulfs and valleys, and dramatic mountain scenes were depicted on large-scale canvases to take the viewer's breath away. The natural world, for Burke, was the most sublime of objects, and James Ward's Gordale Scar (1812-14) attempts to translate the sublimity of nature by presenting a dramatic view of limestone rocks cutting through the majestic landscape of Yorkshire (in Great Britain) set against a dark and ominous sky.
The burgeoning popularity of the sublime in nature inspired Thomas Moran, who travelled across the Atlantic Ocean and shared what he had learned with his American contemporaries in the Hudson River School where depth, space, and drama became the order of the day. In France, the painters of the Barbizon School Jules Dupré (inspired by Constable) and Theodore Rousseau used nature to explore themes such as the insignificance of humanity and the transience of life, which went on to inform Impressionism.
The theme manifested itself in the 21st century as nature morphed from the subject to the medium, and the American West - previously depicted as a dangerous frontier - became the site of Earth Art. Michael Heizer's Double Negative (1969) evokes feelings of awe and dread as two vast trenches measuring 1,500 feet long, 50 feet deep, and 30 feet wide (so large they can be seen as dark shadows in Google Map's satellite imagery) are cut into the earth dwarfing the viewer. Likewise, Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels (1973-76), in the Utah desert aim to connect the viewer with the cosmos, highlighting human insignificance while simultaneously and paradoxically elevating them. The work comprises four concrete tunnels, drilled with holes to pattern the constellations of Draco, Perseus, Columbia, and Capricorn in a bid to bring the sky to earth. Holt said she wanted to examine "the human perception of time and space, earth and sky".
Terror and Death
Sublime art is meant to shake the viewer, to instill fear, and remind them of their own fragile mortality. Burke wrote about a "terrible sublimity" linked to notions of death, powerlessness, and annihilation and in doing so, like Longinus, likened it to the vast, uncontrollable, unknowable ocean. Artists such as Turner and Claude Joseph Vernet translated this in their depictions of shipwrecks, which pose not just fear of death but the fear of the unknown presented by drowning.
Burke linked pain with death, explaining, "what generally makes pain itself, if I may say so, more painful, is that it is considered as an emissary of this king of terrors." Such terror is seen in Eugène Delacroix and Théodore Géricault's gory and visceral works. That tradition manifested itself throughout the 20th century as well, in the works of Paul Cezanne's The Three Skulls (1900), Pablo Picasso's Guernica (1937) and Frida Kahlo's Girl with Death Mask (1938).
Contemporary artists have explored the terrible sublime in explorations of recent political events and their effects on our individual and collective psyche, while art critic Thomas McEvilley predicted at the turn of the century that "the culminating developments of capitalist globalization would be the terror-sublime of the next 50 years".
Technology and Modernity
At the turn of the century, artists began looking at the way changes in industry affected the human experience. New York's waterways became a subject for the Ashcan School and artists such as George Bellows, Robert Henri, Reginald Marsh, and Georgia O'Keeffe painted bridges, cranes and ocean liners. In Europe, the technological sublime was explored by the Italian Futurists, such as Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Umberto Boccioni, who used science and mechanics to unsettle the viewer and reject tradition and the past. More recently, cultural historian David Nye, in American Technological Sublime (1994) proposed that the admiration of the natural sublime, as experienced in dramatic landscapes, was replaced by the sublime of the factory, aviation, war machinery, and the sublime of the computer.
More recently, artist Simon Morley has situated the contemporary sublime within the experience of modern life and its relation to science and technology as it hurtles into the unknown. He connects awe and wonder with terror, writing, "The sublime experience is fundamentally transformative, about the relationship between disorder and order, and the disruptions of the stable coordinates of time and space. Something rushes in and we are profoundly altered." In this context, artists including Anish Kapoor, Damien Hirst, Bill Viola, and Hiroshi Sugimoto examine the self and the role of the artist within the dizzying context of mass media and vertiginous technological advance.
Postmodernism and Conceptual Art
Conceptual artists have played with the notion of fear in a contemporary examination of the sublime. Anish Kapoor's Marsyas (2002) comprised vast sculptures that took up the entire Turbine Room at the Tate Modern, towering over viewers in a way that as the curators explain "permeate physical and psychological space." The structures were made of PVC to look like human skin and threatened to swallow up the viewer, like giant mouths.
Environmental artists such as Betty Beaumont and Agnes Denes meanwhile use the outdoor space to highlight the damage we are doing to the earth, and therefore not just the death of the individual but the death of humankind as a whole, and Andreas Gursky's photographs meanwhile look to Kant's mathematical sublime, as he presents complex and dizzying images that dwarf and confuse the viewer with repeated perspectives.
The sublime has always been used as a vehicle to make sense of (or communicate a failure to grasp) world events, and this is no different in a contemporary context. Julie Mehretu refers to the September 11 attacks in her abstract canvas Dispersion (2002). As artist Julian Bell explains, "Her melodramas of swooping vectors and nested graphemes, with their bravura, baroque complexity, seem to picture the dynamics of the age on a very large and general scale." And Luc Tuymans's Still Life of the same year was presented in reaction to the attacks on the US. The work depicted a fruit bowl on a vast canvas, representing an absolute nothingness and a monument to this inadequacy of language. As Simon Morley suggested, "In response to unimaginable horror, Luc Tuymans offers the sublime. A gaping magnitude of impotency, which neither words nor paintings could ever express."
In the 1980s, French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard ushered in a new wave of postmodern sublimity, exploring notions of pleasure and pain, neurosis and masochism. Lyotard's two influential essays "Presenting the Unpresentable: The Sublime" (1982) and "The Sublime and the Avant-garde" (1984) reignited the subject in public discussion and saw exhibitions that brought the debate back to the viewing public.
Lyotard looked back to Burke and into the present day, focusing on the dominance of temporality in artistic debate; he reframed Barnett Newman's phrase "The Sublime is Now," suggesting that "now" is, in fact, a moment of nothingness. He wrote, "The avant-garde task is to undo spiritual assumptions regarding time. The sense of the sublime is the name of the dismantling." Current thinking has also explored the notion of temporality in the sublime and asks how art can stretch or destabilize it. Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson talks about the subjectivity of time and the "length of now."
Notions of fear and wonder have proven to be as irresistible to contemporary artists as they were to the Romantics. In 2018, the Chaos and Awe: Painting for the 21st Century exhibition at Tennessee's Frist Gallery presented works from artists grappling with the destabilizing effects of such 21st-century forces as globalism, mass migration, radical ideologies, and complex technologies. Curator Mark Scala said, "Many people today are feeling anxiety and helplessness. People are struggling to adapt to a period of instability and dramatic shifts in meaning." Through the works of Franz Ackermann, Wangechi Mutu, Ellen Gallagher, and Matthew Ritchie, Scala explored the precariousness of the contemporary world and how people respond to it.