Landscape reviewed…

I’ve now reached the end of the landscape module and it’s time to look back and reflect. I received my notes for Level 3 and found the review document and thought I’d use it to provide feedback on Landscape.

 

Where have you come from?

I began this course with little, if any, understanding of landscape as a genre and whilst I was able to appreciate a beautiful, awesome (there are numerous adjectives that could be positioned here) view and [various adjectives as required] landscape art, I was unable to create that type of art myself. Moving on 14 months and I’ve learnt an abundance about the landscape genre and I’m comfortable in my knowledge that I’m not a landscape photographer.

 

What have you learned?

My approach is very much ‘to document’, I don’t aim to record a scene in any particular way other that the way it was seen by me. Earlier on in the degree (People and Place) I was criticised for not removing a telegraph pole and the associated wires and for not removing the litter on the ground. This irked me because I had taken a photograph that re-presented what I’d seen and the genuine feel of the place – I was recording the real people in their real environment, why did it need to be prettified? In this module, my tutor commented that I had not photographed the churches in a romantic way. I continue to return to this comment and come up with nothing. So, I’d suggest my forte is not romantic landscape photography.

Nonetheless, I believe I learnt more about photography, more about me and my photography and more about my approach on this module than any of the others. This is probably down to a number of things – I’m more confident in my art and more certain in the things that interest me; I’m happier to give things a go even though I know they don’t necessarily play to my strengths, but appreciate they add to the learning experience; my communication has improved – language, format, networking, support – and I’m now really enjoying the learning experience.

 

What mistakes did you make?

My timing still leaves a lot to be desired. Transitions was undoubtedly the most difficult and the most helpful assignment of the module. I planned the photography and reviewed the photographs, but I didn’t plan the assignment. I should have documented the possible options regarding different outcomes and portfolios. I struggled pulling together the final group of images, not because of lack of material but because I lacked a structured approach.

 

What were the low points? High points? Who influenced you?

Low points – when I’m asked questions sometimes I don’t know how to answer them. For example, my tutor asked me to relate the sublime to my current and future work and I was genuinely unable to provide an answer, other than ‘it doesn’t’. I was recently watching an interview with Luc Tuyman about the Still-Life he created post 9/11. It’s a huge canvas depicting fruit on a table – it is banal in the extreme, but because of its size it is able to ‘fracture our concept of reality‘ by making the ordinary horrific. Tuyman references this art as sublime in its banality – I’m now beginning to wonder if that’s the like my tutor was referencing?

High points – 80 years in the making… was undoubtedly the high point. Doing the exhibition was harder than I anticipated – especially the hanging of the poster boards.

Influences – I think I’m influenced by everything I see; I take away what I like and learn from what I don’t; in this module I have spent significantly more time examining and trying to understand images that don’t communicate with me. Key influences in the module have been William Eggleston, Todd Hido and John Maclean.

 

How are you critically positioned within photography as a result of your work on this course?

I believe I have a better understanding of my arts ‘position’ within photography, but I don’t yet feel ready to adopt a genre for my work. Currently the modules provide a framework and whilst there is a degree of leniency regarding assignment matter, my feedback clearly indicates that I do not always get things right.

 

How might what you’ve produced impact on your future projects?

Transitions was informative; thoughts, ideas and research are only any good if you can retrace your steps and make all of the elements come together at the right time. Carrying out a larger project requires ‘project management discipline’ in terms of planning, scheduling and structure; but without a strangle hold that might crush embryonic and sometimes crazy ideas.

For BOW it is suggested that we keep a diary, I started this immediately – even though I didn’t have anything to write or even know what I was going to write about – and surprisingly it’s working. I’m not sure I have more ideas floating around in my head, but I’m certainly getting more out of them simply because I write the down and push them to at least one conclusion.

 

Have you found a personal voice that you’d like to develop?

Using the definition of a personal voice as a particular style that’s uniquely me then probably not, but it is under development. I think as I move towards projects that are more personally directed/driven, my voice will speak loader.

 

If not, what have you learned about your personal voice and how will you go about discovering it from here on?

I enjoy developing extended projects and this module has given me the building blocks to scope out these projects, understand the deliverables and develop a cohesive final portfolio. Continuation of this type of work will undoubtedly develop my personal voice.

 

What are the main lessons you will take away as a result of this module?

Two things – you can never do too much planning or too much research.

Assignment 6 – notes to tutor

Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills – materials, techniques, observational skills, visual awareness, design and compositional skills

The derelict house in the woods was the obvious subject for this assignment and the concept of shooting this space over the period of a year sounded like a great idea. I regularly walked to the woods; so adding a bit of photography to the walk wasn’t going to interrupt my routine that much. I’ve learnt that modifying an existing routine is far easier than completely changing a routine. It quickly became apparent with family commitments and weather constraints, ensuring a walk to the woods would be quite challenging, not surprising when you consider that the round trip is just short of 5 miles.

Additionally, I believed the woods were a familiar place and as such I knew the images I wanted to make. This reasoning was flawed on two counts, first because I wasn’t familiar enough with the area and with the exception of taking snapshots on my phone, I’d never actually photographed the woods or the house; and second because the photographs I took at the start of the project were different to those I took at the end of the project. Initially my focus was the scene – shots from a distance, I suppose building up a 3D model of the area in my head. By the end of the project, I was far more interested in the detail – the litter, the decaying wood, the new growth. It would be surprising and probably a little worrying if my interest had not changed/expanded over the 12 months.

The anchor for the project from day one was the seasons – I had to be able to show the transition of time, weather in this case, across the period of a year. John Gossage’s book ‘The Pond’ immediately sprang to mind, Gossage had done exactly what I was planning to do. I spent time reviewing his images, apparently without a great deal of enlightenment, until I was actually inside the woods taking my photographs. Then the meandering paths; the sparse areas of wood; the strangely bent branches and the muddy puddles all came into their own. William Egglestone’s 10-volume epic ‘The Democratic Forest’ was also a source of inspiration and is similar in nature, but on a far larger scale because it took him a couple of decades to complete. Book 6 – The Pastoral that focuses on paths, woods, trees and leaves and also gardens; and particularly book 8 – The Surface which is full of images where ‘hard meets soft’ (buildings and nature) and different textures, for example, brick and wood; concrete and steel; wood and material. In book 8, there are no people in the images yet without human habitation the images would not exist; they are the fundamental yet missing element. The work makes you think about the specifics of the image you take; more so what to leave out and as a result what questions it leaves unanswered.

Early on in the process I shot with my D90, but quickly I migrated to my X100s simply because it fitted into my jacket pocket and was light to carry on a long walk. With the exception of some summer shots, the light levels inside the wood were not an issue and the photographs were shot hand-held. This was a very natural and easy way to photograph the area, as the project progressed a standard route emerged that I followed each visit, to try to ensure I take the same photographs each time. Having completed the route, I would then go for a stroll around and take additional shots.

After each walk, I posted a selection of my images on my blog with simple annotation which was actually very helpful – it made me verbalise what I was thinking, feeling and seeing in quite a focused way. It also forced me to review my images and this enabled me to pre-think my next visit.

 

Quality of Outcome – content, application of knowledge, presentation of work in a coherent manner, discernment, conceptualisation of thoughts and communication of ideas

Having taken hundreds of images and only needing to select four for the seasons, I decided to select different views for each season to make the viewer engage and think more about the subject, the seasons and the photographs. This is common practice within contemporary photography, the idea behind John Maclean’s book ‘Two and two’ is to challenge and play with people’s conventional views of familiar scenes. Two photographs of a different view of the same object are presented beside each other, some pairs are obvious, some are not but all of them make you think. Maclean does not provide any explanation of his work in his books, but provides a significant amount of information about each project on his website believing that if people are interested enough they will find it. Following in the same vein, but taking things to a completely different level are Niko Fontas and Pep Ventosa. Fontas takes multiple copies of a single image and staggers the copies over the original before superimposing them, whereas Ventosa selects his subject and then takes multiple images at a set distance from his subject to create a 360 degree external view and then superimposes them. The final images created challenge the viewer in very different ways, Fontas screams chaos and very busy lives, but Ventaso is all calm and serenity, ethereal and ghostly.

Selecting the final images was not as difficult as I thought, there were hundreds to go through but the filtering process was obvious; I think more than anything because the concept of the seasons was in my head from day one – after all, the seasons welcome us to Part 6 of the course notes. Without a fixed idea of the final outcome it would have been very easy to get bogged down and create a monster portfolio without direction or purpose. I wonder now how many different portfolios I could make from the collection and how many of them would fulfill the assignment brief ‘an evolving dynamic system’.

 

Demonstration of Creativity – imagination, experimentation, invention and development of a personal voice

After initial negative feedback re the representation of the seasons in a non-classical way, I began to experiment with my images with a view to forcing them to represent what people wanted/expected to see. (The original OCA landscape course asked the students to take one image and manipulate it into the four seasons.) My results were uninspiring and not what I wanted to do for this assignment, so instead I ventured onto the web to look at black and white landscape photographers did to depict the difference seasons. Again apart from the key visual triggers – snow, lambs, specific flowers and of course leaves – it was difficult to specifically identify a particular season. I decided to convert to black and white and was genuinely amazed by the transformation; rather than mask the lack of season, the conversion enhanced the seasons – the colour/temperature was completely different and now had a much more pronounced affect. The mono images were much more readily accepted as ‘seasonal’ without the triggers, but apparently winter still needs snow.

The photographs lent themselves to black and white manipulation and this lead to a spin-off project where I created some ‘memories of…’ the seasons in a Susan Burnstine-esk style.

Dream-4
Memories of Winter

Context – reflection, research and critical thinking

Presenting the four images on a single A3 adds strength to the output and ensures the viewer reads the fours images as one. Rather than being able to reject a single image because it challenges preconditioned stereotypical views of the seasons. I believe it is actually easier for the viewer to re-balance their opinion looking at the images together because they can immediately compare and contrast what they see, rather than having to flick back and forth if the images were individual.

The grey background was specifically selected to assist the photographs in standing out from the background, a white background was to stark and a black background took precedence over the images.

If the images were mounted on the wall, without a title or additional information, they might be considered interesting but I’m not sure they would hold the viewers’ attention. With the additional information, they ask questions of the viewer and challenge pre-conceived ideas.

 

References

Susan Burnstine – http://www.susanburnstine.com/

Eggleston, W. (2015) The Democratic Forest. Gottingen, Steidl.

Niko Fontas – http://f-nikko.com/pages/Transparence.html

Gossage, J. (2010) The Pond. New York, Aperture.

John Gossage – http://aperture.org/shop/books/john-gossage-the-pond-book

Maclean, J. (2010) Two and Two. Belgium, Hunter & James.

John Maclean – https://www.jmaclean.co.uk/

Pep Ventosa – http://www.pepventosa.com/

 

Assignment 6 – submission for “Transitions”

The Four Seasons

Project brief:

Produce a series of images that responds to the idea of ‘transitions’ within the landscape. Record the changes that a part of the landscape undergoes over an extended period of time. You may want to revisit a very specific view or you may choose to explore a particular part of the landscape more intuitively. You may wish to photograph at very specific intervals (monthly, weekly, or even daily) or your routine may develop by other means. The quantity of work that you submit will depend on your particular strategy.

When completed, the assignment should address the notion that the landscape is an evolving, dynamic system. You may wish to confirm, question or subvert this assertion.

Project summary:

For this assignment I selected a specific area to photograph, that area being an abandoned and derelict house and its surrounding woods about 2 miles from where I live. From the beginning of the project my intention was to confirm the assertion that ‘the landscape is an evolving, dynamic system’, by showing the influence of the seasons on the house and the woods.

Whilst the area has unrestricted pedestrian access, because of family commitments it was unrealistic to think I’d be able to visit every week, so from the start of the project I planned to visit once a month. This frequency would enable me to develop a healthy portfolio of images sufficient to build a seasonal portfolio. Roll on 12 months and a surprisingly uneventful year of weather and my images are presenting a portfolio that confirms the landscape as an evolving, dynamic system; but subverts the classical concept of seasonal photography.

Research into what makes a good set of seasonal photographs indicated that acceptance was dependent upon the inclusion of stereotypical visual triggers like snow or fallen leaves. Whilst this was true for both colour and mono images, the mono’s were more openly debated and more readily accepted.

Two elements directly challenge the idea that these images represent the seasons; first the foliage is evergreen and second the photographs do not contain conventional visual triggers that obviously communicate the seasons, for example, snow. Thus presenting them as a group of four and forcing them to be viewed as such ensures the viewer considers each image and attempts to assign them a season. The poem, Ivy written by Lin Burgess, was written specifically for these images.

My main photographic influences are John Gossage and William Eggleston; both photographers have spent considerable time focusing on making extended portfolios of a specific area.

 

 

Chimney bk
Chimney – the four seasons
Tree bk
Tree – the four seasons
House bk
House – the four seasons

Ivy by Lin Burgess

Ruins breed ivy,
That creep and cover.
Clinging and grasping,
Like an upstart lover.
All year round,
It spreads its shoots.
Tendrils that walk,
As if in boots.
It starts in spring,
In summer it spurts.
Spreading its mantle,
Like Victorian skirts.
Autumn comes, it
Begins to rest, and
When winter’s brown,
It wears its vest.
A dark, dark green,
That casts a spell.
And covers ruins,
With its creeping shell.
Attacking mortar, at
An alarming pace.
But the ruins stand
In its embrace.
The surroundings display
The changing season.
But the dark green ivy
Sees no reason.

Assignment 6 planning (sub-project)

I have also been working on a completely separate project, but a related transitional subject, I have been taking photographs of the lake at the bottom on my street for years. Around about September time last year I started to focus on capturing the same image every time I went for a walk – the view looks directly east, up the lake, across the island and onto a pylon at the opposite end. All of the photographs were taken with my phone, standing in almost the same position; there are a couple that are slightly off because flooding prevented access.

In comparison to the subject/area selected for my assignment submission, the seasonal change can be seen here very clearly because of the deciduous nature of the trees. This view is very open across a large expanse of water, thus the different sky/water reflection combinations adds another dimension to this series of images.

The view - Bermuda Lake

 

Lake by Lin Burgess

Down by the lake,
in a hidden nook,
I stop each day,
to take a look.
Camera ready,
check the light,
I take a snap,
and catch the sight.
The pictures vary,
quite a lot,
just as I need,
it’s in the plot.
To record whats there,
the changing scene,
the proof of then,
and what has been.
Foliage, wildlife,
weather too,
dark grey skies,
and reflective blue.
The time of day,
the changing light,
from morning mists,
to closing night.
An island at,
the centre lies,
and distant pylons,
reach for the skies.

 

The poem was written by a friend – a dabbler in poetry – after he saw the GIF sequence. Before receiving the poem, I was pleased the way this project was taking shaping; but the poem and the possibility of a collaboration just takes it to a completely new level. I’m almost certain that the lake and surrounds will form the subject for my body of work.

This file was created on-line at http://gifmaker.me/

Assignment 6 planning (part 12)

Continuing to work with the selected photographs and being unhappy with any manipulation the pushed them closer to the classical seasonal views, I investigated how black and white landscape photographers showed the seasons. After sifting through thousands of Winter images – every single one of them with snow – I was really beginning to give up the will to live! Other than snow and visual markers, I had real difficulty telling the seasons apart. Expanding the search for the other seasons, I found exactly the same situation, unless the image contained a specific visual trigger the season was not mentioned. There were plenty of photographs of such-and-such a place in [month] or such-and-such a place last summer – but they were not specifically entitled with the season. So it seems that for us to accept without question, there must be something included that is beyond question.

I decided to converted my photographs to mono to see if the seasonality was less controversial. I was genuinely surprised by the results; where the colour images looked very similar, the monos looked very different – the colour/temperature of the light was completely different and the conversion had made this was very obvious. The response was different – more investigation, more discussion and more definite opinions at the which image depicted which season. The snowless winter was still an issue…

1. Chimney - Sp - L1000845-4 2. Chimney - S - DSCF2197-1

3. Chimney - A - L1000218-2 4. Chimney - W - L1000700-3

9. Tree - Sp - DSCF2755-4 10. Tree - S - DSCF2157-1

11. Tree - A - L1000220-2 12. Tree - W - L1000659-3

5. House - Sp - DSCF2757-4 6. House - S - DSCF2152-1

7. House - A - L1000215-2 8. House - W - L1000674-3

Back to the discussion about the background – white still looks wrong, the black was a little better but overpowered the images; so after a little bit of trial and error a suitable grey was selected. The grey opened up the images and rather than recede, they look like they step off the page.

Chimney - b&w Chimney bk

Now, to title or not?

Assignment 6 planning (part 11)

These are the correct images, regardless of whether they confirm of subvert the brief of the project.

Having rough printed the images and had them hanging around for a time, I believe them being grouped together communicates the seasons much more effectively. The debate continues about the lack of seasonal indicators and this makes me more determined to use these images.

Further considerations are the background, it was initially white but it was too stark and did nothing to pull the images together – it also highlighted the lack of snow. I’m not however convinced the black is any better, the photographs appear to recede into the background.

Chimney
The Chimney
Tree
The Tree
House
The House

Assignment 4 – critical review, reworked

The Changing Definitions of ‘The Sublime’ in Artistic Practice

Introduction

This critical review aims to investigate the changing definitions of The Sublime and how these have influenced artistic practice. This review barely scratches the surface of the sublime and mentions only a handful of people involved in a truly massive and ongoing debate about the sublime, what it is and what it means.

The Original Definition of The Sublime

What is ‘the sublime’? This is an age-old question that philosophers have been debating for eons. One of the earliest references discussing the sublime, written sometime in the first century, is accredited to Longinus. Longinus believes that works, such as the epics of Homer; the lyrics of Sappho and Pindar; and the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophoclea (when read or orated by a suitable orator) are sublime because of their ability to transport the reader/listener out of himself and ‘confound our judgment and eclipse that which is merely reasonable or agreeable’ (Longinus, 2006: section I) – sublime texts have the ability to sway every reader whether they wish to be swayed or not.

It is natural to us to feel our souls lifted up by the true Sublime […]. If then any work, on being repeatedly submitted to the judgment of an acute and cultivated critic, fails to dispose his mind to lofty ideas; if the thoughts which it suggests do not extend beyond what is actually expressed; and if, the longer you read it, the less you think of it,—there can be here no true sublimity […] (Longinus, 2006: section VII).

Longinus stated that there were five sources of sublimity, namely, grandeur of thought; vigorous and spirited treatment of the passions; a certain artifice in the employment of figures [of speech]; dignified expression and finally, majesty and elevation of structure. Longinus references numerous pieces of work, stressing the emotional language used and the contrasting and conflicting situations narrated by the authors, for example:

The Iliad by Homer – ‘Consider how Homer gives dignity to his divine persons – he measures their speed by the extent of the whole world – a grand comparison, which might reasonably lead us to remark that if the divine steeds were to take two such leaps in succession, they would find no room in the world for another. (Longinus, 2006: section IX)

“A trumpet sound

Rang through the air, and shook the Olympian height;

Then terror seized the monarch of the dead,

And springing from his throne he cried aloud

With fearful voice, lest the earth, rent asunder

By Neptune’s mighty arm, forthwith reveal

To mortal and immortal eyes those halls

So drear and dank, which e’en the gods abhor.”

The songs of Sappho – ‘But her peculiar excellence lies in the felicity with which she chooses and unites together the most striking and powerful features. Is it not wonderful how at the same moment soul, body, ears, tongue, eyes, colour, all fail her, and are lost to her as completely as if they were not her own?’ (Longinus, 2006: section X)

“This, this it is that made my heart

So wildly flutter in my breast;

Whene’er I look on thee, my voice

Falters, and faints, and fails;

 

My tongue’s benumbed; a subtle fire

Through all my body inly steals;

Mine eyes in darkness reel and swim;

Strange murmurs drown my ears;

 

With dewy damps my limbs are chilled;

An icy shiver shakes my frame;

Paler than ashes grows my cheek;

And Death seems nigh at hand.”

Essentially these works demonstrate the authors’ ability to completely immerse themselves and therefore their audience in the thick of the story, thus transporting them – therein ‘lies the force of the oratorical image, […] it does not merely convince the hearer, but enthrals him’ (Longinus, 2006: section XV).

Stretching the Definition of The Sublime in the 18th Century

It is unsurprising that the definition of the sublime has been stretched over the intervening years; bearing in mind Longinus only applied sublime qualities to the written word rather than other visual arts. What is surprising is there appears to have been little discussion about the sublime until some seventeen hundred years later when writers and philosophers such as Dennis, Addison, Burke and Kant et al began expanding the definition.

 

The initial extension was provided by John Dennis and is possibly as much ‘extension’ as it is a discrete list of ‘things – elements and objects’ that could be considered sublime; here we ‘see novel supernatural forces and events placed alongside natural phenomena such as animals and natural disasters’ (Dennis 1704, cited in Brady, 2013:14). Dennis also used sublime to describe his mixed emotions – ‘a delightful horror, a terrible joy, and at the same time, that I was infinitely pleased, I trembled’ (Brady, 2013:14) – in relation to the landscape whilst travelling though the Alps. This clashing of emotions became a common theme in the definition of the sublime:

  • Joseph Addison described the notion of the sublime as something that ‘fills the mind with an agreeable kind of horror’ (Morley 2010).
  • Edmund Burke commented that ‘terror’, which is the heart of the sublime, is passion which ‘always produces delight when it does not press to close’ (Burke, 1998:21).
  • Immanuel Kant when discussing pleasure and pain, approached the subject from a slightly different angle, but on the whole agreed with the argument stating that ‘realities […] can certainly be in opposition with each other, and united in the same subject […] like two moving forces in the same straight line that push or pull a point in opposed directions’ (Kant, 1998:382).

 

Joseph Addison was clear in has distinction between the great, the novel and the beautiful; delight in each bringing different pleasures to the individual. The great pertaining to God and the natural world; the novel referring to creation – the good, the distasteful and the unfathomable; and finally the beautiful, that that makes the first two manageable – ‘gay and agreeable’ (Hipple, 1957:20) – by adding an acceptable veneer.

 

Addison whilst comfortable when applying the word sublime to others – Milton’s sublime genius, imagination and manner of thinking – he did not actually use the word sublime when discussing ‘his’ sublime experience; rather he opted for alternative terms like ‘great, noble, majestic, magnificent and marvellous’ (Hipple, 1957:16) to convey his theory. First to develop a theory on the aesthetics of taste, referring to an appreciation of external objects and pleasures of the imagination; Addison defined the primary pleasures as entirely visual and the secondary pleasures as those that come from our imagination of those visual objects (in-other-words our memories of those objects). Addison stated

by greatness, I do not only mean the bulk of any single object, but the largeness of a whole view, considered as one entire piece. Such are the prospects of an open campaign country, a vast uncultivated desert, of huge heaps of mountains, high rocks and precipices, or a wide expanse of waters, where we are not struck with the novelty or beauty of the sight, but with that rude kind of magnificence which appears in many of these stupendous works of nature’ (Hipple, 1957:17).

Vast size was an integral requirement of this theory, with Addison believing that the imagination railed against any perceived boundaries or limitations, thus preventing the realisation of these sensations. Addison never specifically discussed art or works of art, but in seems reasonable to assign these external objects to primary pleasures.

 

John Baillie, used the term sublime and concurred entirely with Addison regarding size, believing that only large objects were capable of ‘filing the mind [so] that the soul itself becomes […] one simple grand sensation’ (Baillie, 1747: section IV), effectively the senses are overwhelmed to the exclusion of all else. However, Baillie also believed that uncommonness played a significant part in enabling the sublime experience; simply put, if an object becomes commonplace the sublime experience is lost because of developing knowledge and understanding. ‘Admiration, a passion always attending the sublime, arises from uncommonness, and constantly decays as the object becomes more and more familiar’ (Baillie, 1747: section II).

 

Baillie specifically questioned the limited application of sublime qualities, as per Longinus, and asked why they should not be applied across all of the arts.

Is there not a sublime in painting, in music, in architecture, but above all, in virtue?’ (Baillie, 1747: section III). […] ‘The sublime of painting consists mostly in finely representing the sublime of the passions […]. Landscape painting may likewise partake of the sublime; such as representing mountains, which shows how little objects by an apt connection may affect us with this passion: for the space of a yard of canvas, by only representing the figure and colour of a mountain, shall fill the mind with nearly as great an idea as the mountain itself’ (Baillie, 1747: section V).

Alexander Gerard pushed further against the traditional view of the sublime

[…] the fine arts provide the most numerous examples of grandeur produced by association. In all of them, the sublime is attained, chiefly by the artist’s exciting ideas of sublime objects; […] owing to our being led by the exactness of the imitation to form ideas and conceive images of sublime originals’ (Gerard, 1672:22).

Imparting sublimity or conferring grandeur, to objects lacking in such, is key to Gerard’s view; but is only possible by ‘individuals of a superior species’ (Gerard, 1672:29). In this regard, Gerard does agree with Longinus that the elevated mind of the ‘observer’ must be capable of and receptive to these ideas. At the same time he is at pains to clarify that it is equally as easy to confer ‘meanness’ (the opposite of sublimity) ‘when low or grovelling ideas are suggested, when images and similes, taken from mean objects, are applied to an important subject. […] used only by those of an inferior rank’ (Gerard, 1672:30).

 

Gerard believed that painting – using the correct techniques – could create a sublime reaction, albeit less intense, because it triggered the same (remembered) emotions as the real object. Following the same argument, Gerard also challenged the concept of size, ‘the canvas which captures sublime objects, and so gives rise to sublime experiences through association, need not be itself large’ (Brady, 2013:21).

 

With Gerard we see the first attempt at detailing how music achieves sublimity which is ‘derived in part from the length and the gravity of the notes; the former constituting a kind of amplitude to the ear; the latter contributing to that composure and sedate expansion of the mind’ (Brady, 2013:21).

 

Edmund Burke, probably one of the best know authors on the sublime with his ‘philosophical enquiry in 1757’, is included for completeness rather than because of any real addition his writings make to the definition of the sublime on artistic practice.

 

Burke’s theory follows on from the authors we have reviewed; however, he is very precise in his distinction between the beautiful and the sublime.

‘[…] sublime objects are vast in their dimensions; beautiful ones comparatively small; beauty should be smooth and polished; the great, rugged and negligent; […] beauty should not be obscure; the great ought to be dark and gloomy; beauty should be light and delicate; the great ought to be solid and even massive’ (Burke, 1998:113).

By way of introduction to his theory he discusses ‘taste’ and then without specifically defining good-taste versus bad-taste, he settles upon a pragmatic stance stating that

as taste belongs to the imagination, its principle is the same in all men; […]. The cause of a wrong taste is a defect of judgment and this may arise from a natural weakness of understanding […]. A rectitude of judgment in the arts, which may be called a good taste, does in a great measure depend upon sensibility; because if the mind has no bent to the pleasures of the imagination, it will never apply itself sufficiently to works of that species to acquire a competent knowledge in them’ (Burke, 1998:20).

To summarise, you have good taste if you generally agree with what is considered to be socially acceptable at the time. This commonality of taste is fundamental to Burke’s view of the sublime in that ‘terror’ and ‘terrible objects’ instil in the observer the basic concept of self-preservation. Supporting Baillie’s view on the role of passion, Burke further aligns specific passions with the sublime which ‘[…] turn mostly on pain or danger – the ideas of pain, sickness and death – fill the mind with strong emotions of horror; […] and they are the most powerful of all the passions’ (Burke, 1998:36).

 

Burke glances over the arts generally, stating

[…] that poetry, painting, and other affecting arts, transfuse their passions from one breast to another, and are often capable of grafting a delight on wretchedness, misery, and death itself. It is a common observation, that objects which in the reality would shock, are in tragical, and such like representations, the source of a very high species of pleasure. […] I am afraid it is a practice much too common in inquiries of this nature, to attribute the cause of feelings which merely arise from the mechanical structure of our bodies, or from the natural frame and constitution of our minds, to certain conclusions of the reasoning faculty on the objects presented to us; for I should imagine, that the influence of reason in producing our passions is nothing near so extensive as it is commonly believed’ (Burke, 1998:41).

The final reference in this section is Immanuel Kant, Kant also contrasted the beautiful and the sublime, but with some principle differences, ‘as true beauty is found, properly speaking, only in beauty of form, the idea of sublimity is excited rather by those objects which are formless and exhibit a violation of purpose’ (Kant, 1941:16). In addition, Kant’s theory radically shifted the concept of the sublime from the external to the internal

if the pleasure taken in beauty arises from a feeling of the purposiveness of the object in its relation to the subject, that in sublimity rather expresses a purposiveness of the subject in respect of the object. Nothing in nature is sublime; and the sublimity really resides in the mind and there alone’ (Kant, 1941:16).

Thus everything has the capability to deliver the sublime experience, dependent upon the individuals’ knowledge (or lack thereof) or by association.

The 18th Century into the 21st Century

To summarise, the theorists generally agree that a sublime experience exists and that it is most commonly related to vastness and the perceived limitlessness of the natural world – or God. The efficacy of this sublime experience requires an appreciation or minimum basic knowledge relating to the situation, but at the same time a lack of familiarity. Addisons’ sublime, that ‘agreeable kind of horror’, is readily available in the 21st century because vicarious horror is at our finger tips; be that in the form of horror movies; individual or interactive game play and unfortunately the 24/7 streaming of the latest global news on terrorism.

 

Regardless of significant debate, a concrete and specific definition of the sublime remains elusive, so naturally theories are divided as to whether the arts can generate the necessary passions to deliver the experience. Baillie and Gerard included music as a sublime art; Longinus described the deepest and most profound sublime experience as a ‘soul lifting’ sublime that transports the individual, enabling them to briefly grasp something that ‘eclipses’ understanding. Paraphrasing James Judd (Music Director of the Israel Symphony), I believe that the ‘soul lifting’ experience, whilst rare, can most easily be accessed through music (Helix Centre, 2015). Since taste in music tends to be much more eclectic and listening choice is driven by mood, a number of different scenarios could facilitate the sublime experience.

 

The 18th century philosophers agree that, on balance of probability, a skilled individual – writer, orator, painter, musician or architect – could produce ‘art’ that creates a type of sublime experience. At the same time, Burke et al, were clear about the distinction between beauty and the sublime, in my opinion that destination no longer exists today. The sublime can be beautiful, often making the situation even more sublime; Edward Burtynskys’ graphic portfolio on the destructive impact of the oil industry across the globe is testament to this (Burtynsky, 2014).

The Sublime in the 21st Century

From Longinus to Dennis et al there was a 1,700 year gap where little was heard of the sublime. From Dennis et al until now, it has only taken circa 250 years for the sublime to get back on the agenda and it did so with style. In 2008, The Tate began the creation of an installation entitled ‘The Sublime Object: Nature, Art and Language; this pulled together some 40 works of art and presented them, united in a single gallery as ‘one decorative scheme’ (Riding, 2012). The sublime has its own rhetoric, the most commonly repeated words being ‘infinity and enormity’ (Riding, 2012), so naturally there were some enormous paintings included, for example, Gordale Scar by James Ward.

Gordale scar

Figure 1: Gordale Scar (1812 – 14) by James Ward

 

Riding states ‘On the other hand we have William Blakes’ Ghost of a Flea, which is a tiny painting, it’s like a miniature. When you go from standing back and looking at something enormous and then you focus in on something really tiny; I think that too has a kind of sublimity about it because you having to really narrow down and think about what you’re looking at. […] The object itself may be small but the vision behind it is enormous.’ (Riding, 2012).

Ghost of a flea

Figure 2: Ghost of a Flea (1819 – 20) by William Blake

 

Whilst not conventionally sublime, the exhibition included a commissioned text installation entitled ‘Pretty much every word written spoken or heard…’ (2010) by Douglas Gordon. The text was fragmented into phrases and printed – forward and backwards – directly onto the gallery walls, ceiling and floor. Whilst the same font was utilised throughout, various sizes were employed and this required the viewer to physically move around the gallery space to engage directly with the art.

GD1 GD2

GD3 GD4

Figure 3. Screen shots from ‘Art and the Sublime’ film (2012) by Christine Riding showing sections of

Pretty much every word written spoken or heard… (2010) by Douglas Gordon

 

A gallery visitor was asked her opinion of the exhibition. Her overall response was awe; she was intimidated by the avalanche (An Avalanche in the Alps (1803) by Philip James De Loutherbourg) and the water (The Deluge (c. 1840) by Francis Danby) believing the force of nature was going to overwhelm her. Re Gordons’ work, she was aware of the background music and linked the size of the text to its volume. She also felt the artist was attempting to control the pace of the viewing by reversing some of the text. She like and engaged with the work, but did not use sublime words to describe it. However, when she then returned to look at the paintings she became much more aware of the potential sound – noise of the water and the eruption of the volcano. Interestingly Gordons’ work worked on/in the visitors’ imagination and added a further dimension to the already sublime works of art. Perhaps the future sublime will require mixed media.

 

Julian Bell stated that a significant contributory factor in artists delivering the sublime experience was ‘showmanship’ (Bell, 2013). By example, let us reflect on installations by Eliasson, Kapoor and Turrell, it is obvious that these contemporary artists (sublime artists) consider big is best. Most interestingly, when these authors reflect on their works, they require their installations to have real presence and to engage with the audience:

Eliasson commented: ‘connectivity plays an important part in the work, so it’s very powerful when you can successfully combine a singularity (the installation) with collectivity (the audience), it’s about sharpening your expectations.’ (Eliasson, 2011)

Kapoor commented: ‘sometimes one makes works that take you to places you don’t expect to go, and I think that one has to have the courage to go there fully and truly’.’ (Kapoor, 2009)

Turrell commented: ‘I create work that luxuriates in space, spaces that apprehend light for our perception; the world is not one we receive but one we create, we are co-creators of our environment.’ (Turrell, 2013)

 

Eillason

Figure 4. Screen shot from slide show of The Weather Project (2003) by Olafur Eliasson.

Kapoor

Figure 5. Screen shot from slide show of Svayambh (2007) by Anish Kapoor.

Turrell

Figure 6. Screen shot of Amrta (2011) by James Turrell.

 

These artists are creating awe inspiring work, but their desired effect is no longer fear – it is not awful in the original sense of the word – their intension is to challenge what we know and how we behave by immersion in an uncommon environment, with strangers who are also negotiating this same new experience. The Oxford dictionary gives a definition for chemical sublimation as a ‘change directly into vapour when heated, typically forming a solid deposit again on cooling’ (Oxford, 2016), I wonder whether this does not effectively describe what these artists are attempting, taking the individual to a new state (of mind)?

Conclusion

The artistic sublime has taken an incredible journey over the last two thousand years, from epic literature and gigantic paintings that detail the exploits of the supernatural – gods and demons, good and bad – that were designed to awe and terrify us; to modern art installations that engage, amaze and occasionally revolt us whilst challenging our pre-conceived ideas of our environment.

 

I believe we are no longer creating art in an attempt to capture the somewhat elusive sublime experience; rather we are pushing at established boundaries and utilising available technologies to communicate our vision and fulfil our ambitions. Instead of art chasing the sublime, the sublime is adapting to remain current with art.

 

The sublime is a feeling, we are trying to describe a feeling and feelings need to be experienced first-hand. This is further complicated by the rather grand history and somewhat elitist nature of the concept. Add to this the natural evolution of terminology and word usage against a sketchy base definition and it’s hardly surprising understanding the sublime experience is a challenge.

 

I expect the future sublime to be realised by engaging multiple senses, audio and visual stimulation will not be enough; a greater degree of emersion will be required, involving taste, smell and touch. I think we have just scratched the surface of understanding about our planet and the universe and it seems a fitting next step to actually be there at its birth.

 

Total word count: 4,221 (text – 2,267; references – 1,490; bibliography and image list – 464)

 

 

Bibliography

Baillie, J. (1747) An Essay on the Sublime. Publisher unknown.

Weblink: http://www.earthworks.org/sublime/Baillie/index.html

 

Bell, J. (2013) ‘Contemporary Art and the Sublime’, in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, A Tate Research Publication in Tate.org.uk.

Weblink: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/the-sublime/julian-bell-contemporary-art-and-the-sublime-r1108499

 

Brady E (2013) The Sublime in Modern Philosophy Aesthetics, Ethics and Nature. New York, Cambridge University Press

 

Burke, E. (1998) A Philosophical Enquiry. Oxford: Oxford University Press

 

Burtynsky, E. (2014) Oil. Third Edition. Gottingen, Steidl.

 

Eliasson, O. (2011) Interview about the Weather Project installation in the Turbine Hall, Tate Modern in Tate.org.uk

Weblink: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/video/tateshots-olafur-eliasson

 

Gerard, A. (1672) An Essay on Taste. London: Printed for A. Millar, A. Kincaid and J. Bell

 

Helix Center. (2015) The Sublime Experience in YouTube.com

Weblink: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HA6F4rcv2es

 

Hipple Jr, W. J. (1957) The Beautiful, The Sublime and The Picturesque in 18th Century British Aesthetic Theory. Carbondale: The Southern Illinois University Press Library.

Weblink: https://archive.org/stream/beautifulthesubl013216mbp/beautifulthesubl013216mbp_djvu.txt

 

Kant, I. (1914) The Critique of Judgement. Translated by  Bernard, J. H. London: Macmillan and Co Ltd.

Weblink: http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/1217

 

Kant, I. (1998) Critique of Pure Reason. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

 

Kapoor, A. (2009) Interview about the Svayambh installation at the Royal Academy of Arts.

Weblink: http://anishkapoor.com/252/royal-academy-of-arts-2009

 

Longinus (2006) On the sublime. Translated by Havell, H. L. The Project Gutenberg E-book

Weblink: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17957/17957-h/17957-h.htm

 

Morley, S. (2010) Staring into the Contemporary Abys in Tate.org.uk

Weblink: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/staring-contemporary-abyss

 

Oxford dictionary, (2016) Sublime definition. Oxford University Press at Ocxforddictinaries.com

Weblink: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/sublime

 

Riding, C. (2012) Art and the Sublime (film) in Tate.org.uk

Weblink: http://bcove.me/xc8arm0x

 

Riding, C. and Llewellyn, N. (2013) British Art and the Sublime. A Tate Research Publication in Tate.org.uk

Weblink: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/the-sublime/christine-riding-and-nigel-llewellyn-british-art-and-the-sublime-r1109418

 

Illustrations

Figure 1. Ward, J. Gordale Scar (1812 – 14) (A View of Gordale, in the Manor of East Malham in Craven, Yorkshire, the Property of Lord Ribblesdale) [Painting: Oil paint on canvas.] Exhibited at Tate, The Sublime Object: Nature, Art and Language Exhibition, 2010. Support: 3327 x 4216 mm

 

Figure 2. Blake, W. Ghost of a Flea (1819 – 20) [Painting: Tempera and gold on mahogany.] Exhibited at Tate, The Sublime Object: Nature, Art and Language Exhibition, 2010. Support: 214 x 162 mm; frame: 382 x 324 x 50 mm

 

Figure 3. Riding, C.(2012) ‘Art and the Sublime’ film screen shots showing Gordon, D. (2010) Pretty much every word written spoken or heard… Text art installation, exhibited at Tate, The Sublime Object: Nature, Art and Language Exhibition, 2010.

 

Figure 4. Eliasson, O. (2003) The Weather Project (2003) [Photograph by Andrew Dunkley and Marcus Lieth (2003)] Exhibited at Tate Modern, The Weather Project Exhibition, 2003.

Weblink: http://olafureliasson.net/archive/exhibition/EXH101069/the-weather-project#slideshow

 

Figure 5. Kapoor, A. (2007) Svayambh. [Photograph by unknown.] Exhibited at Royal Academy of Arts 2007. 40 tonnes of red wax. Dimensions variable.

Weblink: http://anishkapoor.com/138/svayambh

 

Figure 6. Terrell, J. Amrta (2011) Screen shot from Terrells’ website, part of the Grazfelds collection.

Weblink: http://jamesturrell.com/work/armta/