The other day, I had a view of the most incredible clouds at sunset. It was a huge sweeping expanse of dark greys with bright oranges and pinks reflecting upon them against a pastel sky. Even the mountains looked small in comparison. It was incredible. It was sublime. There was no better word I could think of to describe what I was viewing from my castle in the sky (a.k.a. the apartment).
Seeing those incredible clouds and thinking about the sublime transported me back to my university art history lectures. I decided it would be fun to go back through my old notes to refresh my memory…
The sublime is a concept, state or thing of high spiritual, moral, intellectual or artistic value. In art, it is an awe-inspiring image that creates terror or a feeling of insecurity. It’s the sense of something well beyond your control when you are confronted by an image or a view of nature and its vastness; it’s meant to inspire a feeling of being overwhelmed and/or vulnerable. The romantics explored these emotions in their art and wanted to share the sublime with their viewers and they believed that it was good experience these emotions.
Here is the first artist that comes to my mind when I think of the sublime:
In these images, the fog and mists create mystery and a sense of limitless space, making the viewers experience no security and ambiguity. Where is the horizon? Visibility is limited and sound would be skewed. The fog could be seen as a metaphor for an unclear future. The figure in Wanderer above the Sea of Fog is the focus, surveying a murky landscape while at the same time, insignificant the grand landscape he is surveying.
Nebel especially, Friedrich created an image that is meant to transcend rational structure and inspire a search for narrative. For me, these images create a sense of smallness in the world. It’s also disconcerting to try and see what is right in front of you. He is enveloping the viewer and the image in fog.
In other images of the sublime, nature is threatening. They don’t celebrate the power of the individual but rather express man’s vulnerability; for example, Snowstorm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps by Joseph Mallard William Turner. The storm in this painting is of cataclysmic proportions and threaten to destroy the figures.
Another, more subtle depiction of the sublime can be found in Antoine-Jean Gros’ Napoleon Bonaparte visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa. Here the sublime is expressed through the contrast in colours, the horror of disease and the mystery of the Far East. It invokes a sublime response to neoclassical subject matter. Here, neoclassicism comes together with romanticism through subject and reaction.
Art history really is fascinating.