Contextual note for part 4 (2): The Sublime

In this second part I will have a short sneak in the sublime and its meaning for visual art.

For all projects ‘Sublime‘: 

My tutor suggested me to look at the concept reps. theory of the Sublime. I am currently residing in Switzerland in the canton Bern and would have easily access to the mountains around me and the snow dropped already down there. Sublime as a concept has a long history going back. Nowadays the word as such is at times used equally for ‘stunning, amazing‘.

In the 18th century

Historically the concept is defined through

Immanuel Kant (‘Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime1764), and

Edmund Burke (‘A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful ‘, 1757),

Sublime: “Theory developed by Edmund Burke in the mid eighteenth century, where he defined sublime art as art that refers to a greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation” (Tate glossary – click here)

Burke defined in ‘A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful ‘, 1757  the sublime as an artistic effect productive of the strongest emotion the mind is capable of feeling. He wrote ‘whatever is in any sort terrible or is conversant about terrible objects or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime’. He considered nature  as the most sublime object. Nature as been capable to generate strong human sensations of awe, terror and danger. This romantic conception of the sublime was influential for generations of artists to follow.

The terrible is like the sublime: it is not to be abused.
– Eugène Delacroix, Journal, 1857 –

In that sense fear and over-powering of nature and industrialisation in the 19th century and fear and world war catastrophes in the 20th century dictated the articulation of the sublime in visual arts. In the 21st century a different approach has to be found.

In the 19th century

John Ruskin (1819 – 1900) investigated more in beauty and its relationship with sublimity in his book Modern Painters, 1843 (available fro:

Ruskin departed from the distinction between sublime ad beauty as outlined by Burke and Kant and to consider them as separate aesthetic categories. He had the idea that human mind takes unrestricted pleasure from nature and art. A statement that soon he changed and considered them as distinct as well admitting. “.. that many things are sublime in the highest degree, which are not in the highest degree beautiful, and vice versa.” This in consideration to categorise the violent emotions and returning back to 18th century concept.

In Ruskin’s own words is “sublimity .., therefore, only another word for the effect of greatness upon the feelings; — greatness, whether of matter, space, power, virtue, or beauty…. The sublime is not distinct from what is beautiful, nor from other sources of pleasure in art, but is only a particular mode and manifestation of them. ” (Landow, 2005)

Burke as well as Kant distinguished between the sublime and the beautiful. Ruskin struggled with this but kept them separate as well. It sounds to me that there might a combination, at times dialogue of opposite poles in an experience. When I am looking back at my own experience visiting the ‘Aare-Schlucht (Are-Gorge)’ – click here – I did feel frightened of the narrowness of the strong and at times dangerous looking rocks and on the other side felt intrigued and aspired by the beauty of the geological formations and the extremely long and condensed earthy experience inside those rocks. I tend more towards a phenomenological approach and the embodied experience one has on site – with full emotional response.

Examples form 19th century (in the conception of the sublime defined by E. Burke):   

  • J.M.W Turner (1775 – 1851): his landscape paintings of  sea storms and mountain scenes
    – ‘Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps‘, exhibited 1812 – click here, or
    – ‘Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth‘, exhibited 1842 – click here
    => The steamboat vessel in the vortex could be interpreted as a symbol of “mankind’s futile efforts to combat the forces of nature. ” (Tate). Alongside Turner’s painting ‘Snow Storm: … Alps‘ his paintings do express human’s vulnerability facing an overwhelming force of nature. (Riding, 2013)
  • Henry Fuseli (1741 – 1825): a painter of historical paintings adn violent dramas with themes from Shakespeare
    – ‘Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers‘, exhibited 1812’ – click here
    => Fuseli was particularly drawn to the cruel and erotic elements in Shakespeare’s work. He painted this work feely, less concerned about accurate representation. This painting was possibly a sketch for an intended larger work. The figures are ghostlike and Fuseli’s intention to work on the viewer’s psyche. He wrote once:  “All minute detail tends to destroy terrour”  (Tate) Quite in the context of Burke’s definition of the sublime concept.

The working with the human’s psyche and vulnerability and the notion that images can produce upsetting or disturbing effects, and by that considered as a legitimate function of art, is a kind of guiding theme extending into the 20th century. Although Sublime was redefined.

In the 20th century: 

Over the centuries the ‘classification’ of what would be sublime or not may change. Example are mountains that were considered non attractive in the 16th century, sublime in the 18th century and as a source of beauty in the 20th century. R. G. Collingwood (‘Outlines of a Philosophy of Art‘, 1925) was one of the first considering the categories of beauty and sublime as absolute as both are reflecting on the human experience of emotion  (Landow, 2000)

  • Andrei Tarkovsky (1932 – 1986) : 

His ‘Sublime Polaroids‎’ taken in the period from 1979 – 1984 (Sorene, 2016) do show his native  Russia featuring his familiar and directly surrounding environment of family members, dogs, garden etc. Capturing life as a reflection – quite contemporary at that time but now rather obvious considering the vast amount of visual images incl selfies taken by anyone with a smartphone.  I find Tarkovsky’s own thought very insightful when he talked about the imperfection of the world around  us and his focus on metaphorical meaning of images: “We can express our feelings regarding the world around us either by poetic or by descriptive means. I prefer to express myself metaphorically. Let me stress: metaphorically, not symbolically. A symbol contains within itself a definite meaning, certain intellectual formula, while metaphor is an image. An image possessing the same distinguishing features as the world it represents. An image — as opposed to a symbol — is indefinite in meaning. One cannot speak of the infinite world by applying tools that are definite and finite. We can analyse the formula that constitutes a symbol, while metaphor is a being-within-itself, it’s a monomial. It falls apart at any attempt of touching it.” (Andrei Tarkovsky) and further talking about the role as film director (and I would extend this to any visual artist) to “… represent the reality of his inner life, of the peregrinations and struggle into which the external world has thrown him.

Tarkosvky strongly believes in the mystery of human consciousness. His science fiction film ‘Solaris‘, 1972 based on the novel by S. Lem does express this strongly. The solaris alien and apparently salient ocean around the space station does reflect the struggle of the humans as a metaphor. Tarkovsky enforces that by the referential hanging of Breughel’s painting ‘Hunters in the Snow‘ (click here) and his view that the humans are discovering themselves in the mirror of an alien’s mind. “Humanity is the true wonder, the true miracle. ” (Jones, 2005)

In the 21th century: 

As said before I do think that nowadays a more phenomenological approach of embodied experience of expansive sites and the magnificence of human emotional experience is valid.

Tacita Dean explores nature and reveals her fascination with Burke’s concept of the sublime. But alongside the fear she expresses the experience of pleasure of the beauty and power of nature the same time. Dean makes film to be able to show the viewer more than one image at a time. There is a romantic sense in her films linked to nostalgic memories (Dean used analog technology for her films) and the slow progression of the images are inspired by those largely human feelings,

  • JG‘, 2013. Color and black & white anamorphic 35mm film with optical sound, 26.5 minutes.  Available from:  and from:  
    => This film is inspired by Dean’s correspondence with British author J.G. Ballard (1930-2009) regarding connections between his short story “The Voices of Time” (1960) and Robert Smithson’s iconic Utah ethereal earthwork and film Spiral Jetty (both works, 1970) – click here. The story is related to the land art works by Smithson in the Death Valley in Utah. Dean relates the dystopian science fiction by Ballard (neurosurgeon in a clinic in the dry salt lakes in a mental and physical decline) with the elemental power of nature.

Another earlier film by Dean related to the sublime is:

  • Disappearance at Sea‘, 1996. Film, 16 mm, projection, colour and sound – available from: 
    => The film with a static camera on a lighthouse does show in repetitive sequence a close up view on the lighthouse’s bulbs and the vast view over the sea with progression over time from dawn to nightfall. The story of the film is about human failing inspired by the story of Donald Crowhurst (1932–1969), a British businessman and amateur sailor who died while attempting a voyage around the world during which he falsified his progress. It is also about the fight of a lonely human  against the sea in a tortured psychological state. The failure is failing of human to reach imagined utopias.  Curator Clarrie Wallis suggested that with Dean’s fascination with the sea the subject is related back to Burke’s notion of the sublime where natural elemental forces have been seen as symbols for turbulent psychological state of human emotions. (Martin, 2015).

Beside the film Dean made recently some very large drawing on blackboard

  • Fatigues‘, 2012 Available from:
    => This is a series made over many weeks in a two-story space in Kassel, Germany to create a natural sequence of events within the narrative of the drawings. She started at the upper floor depicting the mountain peaks of the Hindu Kush and the glacial source of the Kabul River. By using the gravity of the space Dean showed “the river descending towards Kabul as the snows melt and the rising water bring the annual floods that are both welcomed and feared”. (Marian Goodman Gallery) Here comes across the idea of the sublime with the fear of humans alongside pleasure. Constrasting to Burke’s concept there is now a constant dialogue between both human emotional expressions.

I found another very contemporary and intriguing example of what sublime might be today:

  • Luc Tuymans ‘Still life’, 2002. Oil on canvas (357 x 500 cm) that he painted at very large scale in remembrance of the horrible events of 9/11. A ‘still’ painting, too large to contemplate on, and through the depicted stillness and emptiness “the ephemeral light, with which the canvas seems to glow, places it as an epic masterpiece of metaphysical and spiritual contemplation. In response to unimaginable horror, Luc Tuymans offers the sublime. A gaping magnitude of impotency, which neither words nor paintings could ever express. ” (Saatchi Gallery)


=> The concept of Sublime is a vast territory and there is huge research project done by Tate. I feel already exhausted and my head is bumping before digging deeper in this subject and have to stop here not to get lost and sidetracked again. I will come back later on this topic  with a more focused approach and having hopefully clearer questions to ask myself.


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