3. Project 3: The Beautiful and the Sublime

3.1. Perspectives on Beauty and the Sublime

Robert Adams has written extensively and insightfully on beauty and photography, from the perspective of a landscape practitioner. He asks:

“Why is Form beautiful? Because, I think, it helps us meet our worst fear, the suspicion that life may be chaos and that therefore our suffering is without meaning.”

Adams, R. Beauty in Photography (1996) New York: Aperture. Pg 25.

Herein, perhaps, lies the binary distinction between beauty and the sublime.

“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. In this case, the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it.”

Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, [1757] (1990) Pg 53.

Whether consciously or not, the sublime is something we’ve all personally encountered, although perhaps without necessarily being able to fully appreciate or articulate what it is. Much like the idea of beauty, the sublime is a slippery term, often taken for granted or misused. It is a concept that lies behind the motivation of much landscape work, in painting and photography as well as other media.

Certainly, early pictorialist as well as topographic photographers inherited the preoccupation of the sublime from eighteenth- and nineteenth century painting. The concept of the sublime relates to the human psyche (although Edmund Burke used the word ‘soul’), which is equally fluid and an ongoing topic of discussion.

Where beauty might dominate the realm of aesthetics (taste, touch, sight), the sublime occupies the imagination. There are no such things as ‘sublime objects’, but when something triggers a psychoactive response in an individual – for example, a mountain, a waterfall or a great canyon – then you are in the presence of ’the sublime’. As Liz Wells succinctly describes it:

“...the sublime is associated with awe, danger and pain, with places where accidents happen, where things run beyond human control, where nature is untameable.”

Wells, L. Land Matters: Landscape Photography, Culture and Identity (2011) London: I.B.Tauris. Pg 48.

As with the concept of beauty, the sublime has been subject to discourse over the centuries, even millennia. One of the earliest thinkers on the topic was the Greek philosopher Longinus (c.300 AD), whose treatise related to literature rather than to visual works. In addition to Burke, Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), Georg Hegel (1770–1831) and Johann Schiller (1759–1805) all made substantial contributions to the field.

Perhaps the most significant development of our understanding of the sublime in relatively recent years is owed to Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), who defined the sublime as not just an aspect of aesthetics, but of psychoanalysis. Freud related the sublime to his idea of ‘the uncanny’, which refers to a feeling of discomfort when seeing something that is simultaneously familiar and alien. Freud’s choice of vocabulary with which to describe this principle, ‘Das Unheimliche’, relates to being ‘not home’ or contrary to what is familiar – not just in terms of location, but also in terms of identity. The un-settlement, or more accurately, cognitive dissonance that can result from an encounter with the uncanny is what can stir the sense of the sublime.

“In many cultures, a confrontation of the sublime is a requisite rite of passage. Within my project, Threshold Zone (2008) I explored and attempted to rationalise my own response to both man-made and naturally formed underground spaces. I felt curious, and was determined to make some work in these spaces, but I was also acutely phobic of being underground, particularly when working alone.

These spaces were generally physically unfamiliar to me, yet my mind was filled with familiar fairy tales and contemporary narratives relating to the dangers that lurk below ground in the darkness. I channelled these feelings into a creative strategy, in which I placed my camera in a space referred to as the ‘twilight’ or ‘threshold zone’ of a cave; the area that lies somewhere between the ‘entrance zone’ of a cave that receives some daylight, and the ‘dark zone’ that receives none. The resulting, highly contrasting images which are presented as back-lit light-boxes, I hope illustrate my encounter with the sublime.”

Jesse Alexander, Course Co-author.

Jesse Alexander, Box Freestone Quarry, from the series Threshold Zone (2008) Image courtesy of the artist.

The sublime was a particularly common theme throughout eighteenth- and nineteenth- century painting and literature. An example of this is the German painter Caspar David Friedrich’s (1774–1840) often-referenced Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818), also known as Wanderer above the Mist. The anonymous male figure encounters the majesty and awe of the scene and the terrain before him, but we can never really be sure if he is truly bold and fearless of what lies in front of him, or whether he is terrified. Photographic artist Helen Sear, whose ongoing practice explores relationships between nature and culture, references Friedrich’s Wanderer in her two series of digital images, Inside the View (2004–08) and Beyond the View (2009–10). In these works, Sear layers different perspectives of views, and with a time- consuming digital (manual) process, picks out holes to form an intricate, lace-like patina across the ‘surface’ of the image. The obscurity of the resulting image – a simultaneous combination of a partially visible female subject and multiple views of a place – demands the eye to render some visual order from this beautiful chaos and, in so doing, establishes for the viewer a challenging inquiry into the sublime.

Louise Ann Wilson argues that a ‘feminine sublime’ has actually existed for generations, but has tended to be marginalised by more masculinist perspectives. Her conference presentation Dorothy Wordsworth’s Legacy: A feminine ‘material’ sublime approach to the creation of Applied Scenography in mountainous landscapes, says that a uniquely feminine approach to mountains has;

remain[ed] under-recognised and on the fringes of mainstream dialogues, which – historic and present day – are dominated by masculine ‘transcendent’ sublime accounts, encounters and endeavours. The presentation explores how in Early Romanticism the concept of the masculine sublime – an intellectual and spiritual experience that transcends physical matter – came to dominate discourses on landscape. It then proposes how, in contrast, the feminine ‘material’ sublime is concerned with being located in and materially present to the physical landscape, not as a place from which to escape or disappear but to ‘reappear’ – a process she... argue[s] is transformative and therapeutic.”

Louise Ann Wilson, Into the Mountain- A Meet (2018) Into the Mountain.

Exercise 4: Perspectives on the Sublime

Is it reasonable to suggest that the sublime remains a gendered concept? Are we becoming more open to questioning previously held assumptions (unconscious) about whose view we are being asked to take?

Contribute to the conversation on this topic with fellow students and tutors on the VLE, or via this Student Forum thread.

Casper David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818) Courtesy of Kunsthalle Hamburg.