Pink and orange abstract sunrise, accented by teal and burgundy.

Art and My Obsession with the Sublime

As an artist, I’ve been obsessed with expressing the sublime for a long time. Most often, this shows up in my art as misty, hazy, moody paintings and dramatic compositions.

I’ll dive into what’s meant by “the sublime” and give some examples of it that I’ve experienced in art and music.

Pink and orange abstract sunrise, accented by teal and burgundy.

“First Light.” Acrylic on canvas. 8 in. x 8 in. Private collection.

What is “The Sublime?”

The term actually goes back to 1st Century Rome. Longinus wrote about the sublime as a way to describe great, elevated, lofty thought or language, mainly in the context of rhetoric. The sublime is associated with awe and veneration. The Great Texts, such as Homer, and even Genesis, are full of the sublime. 18th Century philosophers rediscovered Longinus’ work and applied it to their theories on aesthetics.

The Grand Tour

In the 17th and 18th Centuries, young men in the wealthy upper class would embark on the “Grand Tour” of Europe, taking in all the sights of the high cultural touchpoints on the continent. It was a sort of pilgrimage for the elite, a precursor to modern tourism. As railroads developed, this sort of travel became affordable for more people, so British, German, and American philosophers, writers, and artists did the same tour. Even I did a version of this in 1999 when I was 20 years old, and I grew up in a middle-class American family.

On such a Grand Tour, the word “sublime” began to be used to describe aspects of the natural world such as the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps, which became a theme for Romantic painters such as J. M. W. Turner. Or for describing the experience of seeing great architecture in Athens, Greece.

Reaction to the Enlightenment

Meanwhile, an aesthetic movement, Sturm und Drang (German for “storm and stress” or “storm and drive”) evolved from this same reaction against the Enlightenment, which was focused on logic, reason, and the intellect. The clash between the Enlightenment and the Romantic movements is an exemplary illustration of the Classic-Romantic split that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance talks about. This movement grew into the Romantic movement, which later influenced the Vienna Secession, which influenced psychedelia.

(All the art movements are connected, either as a reaction to or continuation of earlier movements. It’s one big multigenerational conversation.)

When I study art history, I resonate most deeply with all the romantic movements far more than the analytical movements. Matters of the heart seem more real to me than matters of the head. I find more connection to the transcendental, the awful and the awe-inspiring.

Evanescent

There’s an exhibit at The Frist Art Museum here in Nashville right now that I really want to see, called J.M.W. Turner: Quest for the Sublime. (The museum is closed at the time of this writing due to COVID-19.) Turner’s quest for the sublime is the same Romantic pursuit of the dramatic power of nature, which shows our own impermanence and evanescence.

That’s the thing about the sublime: it’s abstract, and not-quite-there. It’s ever-changing, yet it’s always there. It’s permanent, yet fleeting. It’s this exquisite paradox, definitely liminal, in-between. This explains why I’ve been obsessed with fog for so long.

Some examples of the sublime that have moved me, personally.

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog

Probably the most classic example of the Romantic movement in art is Caspar David Friedrich‘s painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, painted in 1817 or 1818. It’s typical of the 19th century Romantic artists who created epic nature scenes as an expression of the sublime. It’s both awe-inspiring and terrifying. There’s a sense of mastery over nature, yet there’s a sense that we will never master nature.

The fact that we don’t see the wanderer’s face puts us in his shoes: is he terrified at what’s before him? Or is he smiling in satisfaction at mastering the ascent? If he has mastered the ascent, has he discovered more difficult challenges? What’s hidden in the fog? I think the fog is symbolic and he is searching for clarity. Will he ever get the answers he is seeking? Did he make it this far only to find there is no answer? Which, I think, sets the tone for the modern era perfectly, especially this was painted right at the beginning of the Industrial Age.

The hiker stands as a back figure in the center of the composition. He looks down on an almost impenetrable sea of ​​fog in the midst of a rocky landscape - a metaphor for life as an ominous journey into the unknown.  By Caspar David Friedrich - The photographic reproduction was done by Cybershot800i. (Diff), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1020146

Caspar David Friedrich, c. 1818. Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, oil on canvas. 94.8 cm × 74.8 cm (37.3 in × 29.4 in), Kunsthalle Hamburg

The hiker stands as a back figure in the center of the composition. He looks down on an almost impenetrable sea of ​​fog in the midst of a rocky landscape – a metaphor for life as an ominous journey into the unknown.

Wikipedia

High Hopes

Pink Floyd’s 1994 song “High Hopes” and its accompanying video and Division Bell album cover art by Storm Thorgerson get me every time. David Gilmour’s lyrics reference former band members Syd Barrett and Roger Waters. It looks back fondly at their days growing up and starting the band, back when “the grass was greener,” but mourns when the seeds of division were planted early on.

The part that gets me the most is the solo/bridge before the final chorus, which for me evokes wistfulness and youthful optimism, characterized by a soaring cry which is tempered by a crash back to reality. The video captures this same mood with the banners rising and falling in the air, and young people around a campfire, dancing in “the dawn mist, glowing.” In a way, despite all their disagreements and troubles, some part of them will always be in that optimistic, youthful pursuit of the sublime, traveling the “endless river.”

The guitar solo from Stairway to Heaven

I know, “Stairway to Heaven” is kind of a cliche. It’s a song people love to hate. It’s overplayed. But it’s not without its merits, the way it builds from a folk song to a heavy metal song, culminating in a signature-changing solo before the final verse. It’s that solo that I love. It seems to express something otherworldly and more real than real, much like the songs themes of a mystical underlying reality.

The paintings of Magdalena Morey

I discovered Magdalena Morey on Instagram a few years ago, and her paintings do an excellent job of expressing the landscape in a way that elevates it beyond what you see with your eyes. It’s kind of how I want to paint “when I grow up.” There’s a high vantage point, and you feel inexorably pulled to the horizon, like there’s something just beyond your reach.

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“Rose Tinted Memories” 60 x 60cm. Oils, pastels and gold leaf. This piece is based on a much loved photo taken at the place where I grew up in Poland. With everything going on at the moment nostalgia is rearing its head in unstoppable waves. I find myself getting lost in memories from my younger years as I think about my family and friends scattered across the world. Please get in touch if you’d like more info about this piece. . . . . . . . . . #stayathome #yomequedoencasa #staythefuckhome #staypositive #oilpainting #oiloncanvas #oilpaintings #contemporarypainting #contemporaryartist #nostalgia #sunsetpainting #sunset #inspiredbynature #fineartist #magdalenamorey #loveart #artcollectors #collectart #buyart #buyartonline #onlineartgallery #mixedmediaart #mixedmedia #goldleaf #polishartist #dailyart #artbuyers #artistacontemporanea #artwatchers #artecontemporaneo

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Split by Kenneth Noland

I wrote about this as a painting that had a profound impact on me when I was about 23 years old. It’s unsettling because nothing is centered. That square almost touches the circle in an uncomfortable tangent. I don’t know if Noland meant for it to be off-kilter. I have a feeling that’s intentional, because it’s so unsettling. When I look at it, I feel like the delicate balance of the universe has been bumped, and everything will collapse any moment now. Which I think captures the mood of the Cold War era. And it applies today during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet with anxiety lurking in the background, there’s a hint that alignment is possible. We just haven’t gotten there yet. It is just beyond our reach. We are in that liminal, in-between space, and that is sublime.

Kenneth Noland, "Split." 1959. Acrylic on canvas, 94 x 94 inches.

Kenneth Noland, “Split.” 1959. Acrylic on canvas, 94 x 94 inches.

The beauty is in the pursuit. It’s not something you capture.

The beauty of the sublime is that it is ephemeral. I don’t think we’re supposed to grasp it. It can’t be grasped. But pursuing it is beautiful. The value is in the journey, not in arriving at the destination.

Abstract of trees in mist at blue hour, just before dawn.

“Cold Dawn.” Acrylic on canvas, 8 x 8 inches. In situ.