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The Sublime Explained

by Asterion Avocado 5 months ago in art
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Awe and Terror in Art

The Sublime Explained
Photo by Igor Miske on Unsplash

Brown red rocks were companions in the journey of the waterfall. A tall breeze on a mountain west of Melbourne. People swim in the lake, or pond, created by the cascade. From the top, everything is a Pollock painting, but better.

Since I was a kid I was existentially afraid of the universe, the vastity, the concept of infinity. I could feel my breath closing in, my body crushing under the weight of everything bigger than me. Yet, I found solace, growing up, in the beauty of giant pieces of architecture. The older buildings of Europe and Singapore, the glass skyscrapers of Australia and, well, Singapore. Awe, and inquisition. Aesthetics.

The same goes with flying. Jesus, how scared I am of flying, but how I love it as well… Lost, secure, on top of oceans and clouds.

The Sublime. Let us start from the vastness.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of theories and so on, we can assert that usually, generally speaking, the sublime was associated with nature. Especially for the romantics. Nature, landscapes, seascapes, storms.

That might explain why in western art we find, associated with the concept of sublime, sea storms, mountains, clouds, chasms, volcanic eruptions, and so on.

Take as an example the most famous painting associated with the period (you’d be lying if you kept denying that you haven't come across it in some history or art book):

Wanderer above a sea of fog, Friedrich.

Carspar Friedrich: Wanderer above a sea of fog

A guy stands in the foreground, opposite the spectator, atop a steep cliff. In his right hand, he has a walking stick and is enveloped in a dark green overcoat. The traveller, his hair caught in the wind, looks out at a scene shrouded in a dense sea of fog. Sure, an elegant hiker, right? A philosopher of beauty…

Here the power of nature is mostly experienced as Awe.

We can here imagine the wanderer taking at heart the words of Awe-inspired writer, K. Barrett :

Proceed as directed by your heart.

And like that with hearts fill with wonder, through the wanderer we too experience the grandiosity of this world too big for us.

In fact, we wouldn’t be wrong in assessing that although finite, compared to our minds and hearts, the immensity of the world feels incalculable.

Not only it is all so big, but permanent, compared to our shortly lived lives.

According to Kant, the sublime is our own experience of being drawn to the infinite, and can be found even in an object devoid of form. It is precisely in this last association that the concept of sublime gets dislodged from the concept of beauty, which is instead linked to a finished shape.

Sure, the sublime it’s been mostly associated with nature. But we know, we know how everything can fill us up, saturate us in awe: architecture, animals, poetry, art.

Is romantic art dedicated to the sublime the true meaning of “meta”?

I don’t know. But the sublime does not gift us only awe, but, bringing us to our knees, it leads us to sweet terror.

J.M.W Turner, A Disaster at Sea ?c.1835, Tate Modern

As Edmund Burke put it, the feeling generated by the immense and sublime in nature is amazement and bewilderment where everything halted. All of this, with a pinch of terror.

To put it differently, when we talked about how the vastness of that which brings us awe is linked to immensity, and persistence, we forgot to mention the fact that when we experience these feelings, our minds also wanders to corner where we are reminded of the inconsequence of our lives. And of all of our events.

The sea was there. Wars, invasions, reaching the moon, weddings, birthdays, deaths… the sea was there, the rocks around it were the same. And the stars too have gone unchanged.

Turner: minimising people

The inconsequence of our lives, and the events which we call great, and their scale in comparison to nature can be seen in the oeuvre of Joseph Mallord William Turner.

The storms take all of the space on the canvas, leaving humans as a second thought. Something happening in the “background”. A squint of life with little meaning to the universe.

Sure, we do have hope. Maybe, if we are lucky, we find our stars in other humans. In love.

You lose your way, just take my hand

You’re lost at sea, then I’ll command your boat to me again — Lana Del Rey, Marine Apartment Complex.

But, what about God? Where are they, the gods?

These deep emotions, I transcend my mortal coil

“The Sublime provided a flexible semantic container for the murky new Romantic experiences of awe, terror, boundlessness and divinity that began to rupture the decorous confines of earlier aesthetic systems.”

Rosenblaum, R. (1961) The Abstract Sublime

Such a beautiful storm. Beauty leaves us in terror. Existential angst expressed through the lack of words. All of our thoughts become prayer.

So all things are minimised. People are small, nothing compared to the wrath of nature, the power of the divine. Just like in Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea.

Sure, God, gods, or any form of divinity is an important force driving the romantic/sublime mind.

As a result, landscapes and seascapes, particularly those from the Romantic period, frequently depict enormous mountain ranges, violent storms and waves, volcanic eruptions or avalanches. All fatal, all leaving humans minimised, squashed, belittled and, on the edge of death.

Inspiring the romantic painters (and writers) are also the epic and the supernatural as depicted in play, poetry, and literature by Homer, Dante Alighieri, Milton, Shakespeare and so on. The Bible too. You know, creation and last judgment…

As explained by Marc Barham , the sublime doesn’t end with the Romantic period. In Rediscovering the Sublime as Existential Necessity he explains that in 1961 art historian Robert Rosenblum highlighted parallels between Friedrich’s and Turner’s Romantic nature artworks and Mark Rothko’s Abstract Expressionist works. Rosenblum especially mentions Rothko, who, like Friedrich and Turner, placed us on the verge of the shapeless infinities addressed by Sublime aestheticians. The little monk in Friedrich’s painting and the fisher in Turner’s painting create a dramatic juxtaposition between the limitless immensity of an overarching God and the infinite smallness of everything living on Earth.

How small we are, compare to the universe, can fascinate us, but surely it will make our knees tremble and our veins freeze with fear.

Modern Sublime

Briefly, I would like to note that even in the field of art (as the sublime expands outside of the visual arts), the ideas linked to the sublime did not die with the romantics.

Arguably the strongest example of the sublime between our contemporaries is Olafur Eliasson.

The Weather Project

Olafur Eliasson’s renderings of the sun and sky dominate the span of the Turbine Hall in The Weather Project. A light mist pervades the area as if it had crept in from the outside world. The mist evaporates throughout space during the day. A massive semi-circular shape made up of hundreds of mono-frequency lighting can be found at the far end of the hall. Mono-frequency lamps, which are commonly employed in street lighting, produce light at such a narrow frequency that colours other than yellow and black are rendered undetectable, converting the visual area surrounding the sun into a wide duotone landscape.

Maybe, the message here is that the sublime, being linked so strongly to nature, is more important now than ever.

Climax. Euphoria.

Awe, sublime, exquisite, marvel…magic. And yes, is scary! Euphoria…orgasms?

No, I have not lost my last bolt yet.

What I was trying to express is losing control, giving in to something in us that feels external and overpowering. Our blood in overture.

Is it a painful pleasure? Is it the subconscious exploding? Trembling knees. The divine, the storm, the sea of clouds calling us from under the mountain… How could we not see? The sublime is nothing different from climaxing. In both instances we are left reduced to something powerless, yet, we keep close the strength of knowing, or better, feeling.


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Asterion Avocado

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