1.6 The Sublime in Contemporary Art

Descent - Steven DaLuz 2011

Descent – Steven DaLuz 2011

Fascination with the Sublime is as great today as it was in the eighteenth century and visual artists across all mediums continue to use an aesthetic that generates Burke’s astonishment and awe. Much time and energy is expended discussing photography’s links to painted art and we accept as acquired wisdom that landscape photography has landscape painting in its genes but there is a tendency, once this point has been made, to focus entirely on one medium or the other. In this essay I am primarily interested in how contemporary photography has adopted the Sublime aesthetic but also want to explore a small selection of painters who continue that tradition in their medium because both visual arts exhibit a shifting paradigm from religious to secular motifs.

Stephen DaLuz writes:

“I suggest we consider an option that has been explored in the Romantic Era, during the period of Modernism, by the Abstract Expressionists and, yes, even by purely conceptual artists. I am suggesting that we consider the Sublime, as a current, accessible, and relevant mode of representational artistic expression.” (1)

The period between the eighteen and nineteenth centuries and the late twentieth or early twenty first century has seen a significant shift in the social attitudes of Britain. Much of the early writings on the Sublime and many of the paintings that explored the concept are overtly religious in nature; a Judea-Christian God and all his works are the source of wonder and awe. If we revisit Burke’s aspects of the Sublime with this thought in mind many of the words he uses are commonly associated with an Old Testament God, magnificent, awesome, terrible and infinite with the inclusion of darkness as a nod to the devil. The idea that the Sublime is something ineffable is close to the conventional historic view of God; this relationship was intentional and relevant in eighteenth century Britain but, post Darwin and in our increasingly science-based and secular society, concepts of all-powerful deities, play an ever diminishing role in life, visual art in general and photography in particular.

Simon Morley suggests that discussion of the Sublime in contemporary art might be a covert device to engage in subject matter that was once part of religious discourse (2). One wonders whether after millennium of believing an all powerful, invisible and omnipotent force, or forces, watched over our lives we are now struggling to find an adequate replacement in a post industrial, post religious Europe; that is, to ask whether man is addicted to religious beliefs and having rejected or drifted from the ancient middle-eastern religions we are searching in a world of technology and scientific reason for a ready replacement.

Few contemporary artists, David DaLuz being the exception that proves the rule, are exploring the Sublime in the context of overt religious themes although one might argue that a more ancient idea of Nature has replaced God in this context. Jesse Alexander, who one would expect to take a contemporary view, defines the Sublime as a “general understanding of the concept of nature” (2: p.70) and this description is appropriate for those forms of landscape photography that have their roots, however tentatively, in nineteenth century landscape painting.

Simon Morley believes that the Sublime is now used in five broad ways and in the two  main contexts of nature and technology (2)

  • The problem of the unpresentable in art;
  • The experiences of transcendence:
  • Terror:
  • The uncanny:
  • Altered sates of consciousness.

These categories continue to speak to the representation of something that is outside of our control and understanding; we continue to react with awe, dread, terror and all those other biblical words to what Morley calls something that is “wholly and perturbingly other” (3) but that “other” is now rarely seen as having been created by a heavenly being.

Zonnebeke -Sir William Orpen 1918

Zonnebeke -Sir William Orpen 1918

New subjects have developed, so the sense of the Sublime, a feeling of displacement or being at the mercy of a force greater than ourselves (2: p.72) is being found in a wide variety of contexts. Futility, ruin and waste have been the subject of painted art for many centuries but perhaps rose to prominence again in Britain during and after the First World War. Sir William Orpen’s Zonnebeke adopts the Sublime aesthetic but his focus is not the threat of nature’s angry skies brooding menacingly over the flooded shell holes of the Western Front but rather on the insignificance and vulnerability of the individual in the face of man’s powers of futile destruction. This painting would have been frighteningly evocative for the men who survived the Great War and the families who suffered the loss of their fathers and sons.

The Somme - Don McCullin 2000

The Somme – Don McCullin 2000

War and the violence of man are Sublime themes that can be traced initially through painting and then photography for most of the twentieth and twenty first centuries. There is no suggestion that Don McCullin had the Sublime aesthetic in mind when capturing his iconic photographs of war zones but his “late Photography” representation of the Somme battlefields uses the Burkian devices of darkness, infinity, vastness and obscurity to capture the mood of a place that was once witness to indescribable horror.

War, especially those on the scale of the two great world wars, are extreme transformative experiences for those involved, those spectating from afar and those considering them in hindsight so we could identify many examples of war photography that would be Sublime in the contemporary sense but there is another category of photographs that might be described as the effect of war rather than of war.

Mass Grave at Bergen-Belsen - George Rodger 1945

Mass Grave at Bergen-Belsen – George Rodger 1945

In 1945 George Rodger captured a series of photographs during the liberation of the Bergen Belsen concentration camp which not only played a significant role in bringing the atrocities of the Nazis to the world’s attention but so deeply impacted Rodger that he never worked with such raw subjects again. Genres and attempts at classification in this context are irrelevant and Rodger certainly had no thought of creating a modern interpretation of the Sublime, but as photographs of man’s inhumanity to man, the seemingly limitless bounds of man’s evil and the willingness of people to become sheep in a dictator’s perverted flock they are photographs that represent the unpresentable.

Auschwitz Concentration Camp - Mark Power 1990

Auschwitz Concentration Camp – Mark Power 1990

Many photographers have since visited the preserved remains of the concentration camps and engaged in post or late photographic projects. Mark Power is only one example who has used, consciously or sub-conciously the Sublime aesthetic to keep this history in our consciousness. One could argue that Power has used the railway lines that brought victims to Auschwitz as a metaphor for infinity and the despatch of millions into eternity.

Darvaza - Julian Bell 2010

Darvaza – Julian Bell 2010

Man’s suicidal progress towards destroying the planet is another major theme in all art; in 2010 the painter and writer Julian Bell visited the site of a man-made inferno in Turkmenistan which had been created when Soviet engineers decided to burn off a pocket of gas whilst prospecting for oil; they lost control of the burn-off and abandoned the site; forty years later it was still burning. Bell himself notes the relationship between this work and the Vesuvius series painted by Joseph Wright of Derby in 1774 (4), which I will return to in a moment, but the fundamental difference is that Bell is representing a man-made disaster. This painting, which is on an eight foot wide canvas and therefor use Sublime scale in the representation of the subject as well as in the subject, screams its message that prior to the twentieth century only nature could summon such cataclysmic or apocalyptic forces, now man can, seemingly quite casually, create a volcano or, to return to religious motifs, the gates of hell, Darvaza is the Persian for gate.

Kuwait, Burgan oil fields. American soldiers surround destroyed Iraqi tanks - Bruno Barbey 1991.

Kuwait, Burgan oil fields. American soldiers surround destroyed Iraqi tanks – Bruno Barbey 1991.

Bruno Barbey’s series on the oil fields of Kuwait that were ignited by the retreating Iraqi forces during the Gulf War bring together the Sublime of war and of man-made environmental disasters. Both Bell and Barbey use what Bell calls “dazzling light” (4) to overpower our senses; uncontrolled fire is terrible and awesome and for good reason used repetitively in religion to symbolise ultimate power. Bell and Barbey are part of a process of recording the transference of such power from God or Nature to man.

These examples of the Sublime in photography are generally documentary or photojournalistic in nature and we could continue within those genres to find many more examples. However, it is interesting to look at more conceptual work where the photographers has set out to explore human activity in specific areas in great depth.

Oil Spill #14 - Daniel Beltrá 2013

Oil Spill #14 – Daniel Beltrá 2013

Daniel Beltrá is one of a number of contemporary landscape photographers who have focussed their work on man-made environmental disasters. Beltrá takes us into the area of the Sublime where it is at its most paradoxical, the place where man-made disasters meet visual beauty. We could discuss whether horror should be made artistically beautiful but that is a discussion for another day. His work is wide ranging so my comments here focus on the Spill series and the image above where we have the element of vastness shown by the scale of the floating rig and its tender; throughout Spill Beltrá gives us points of reference that describe the scale of the Gulf of Mexico disaster but beyond that, and without ever showing us the detail of the impact of this vast oil spill, he evokes every photograph we have ever seen of oil soaked sea birds and tar covered beaches.

Near Megalopolis, Arcadia, Greece - Stuart Franklin 2007

Near Megalopolis, Arcadia, Greece – Stuart Franklin 2007

Another photographer who has concentrated his attention on human impact to the environment is Stuart Franklin. His Footprint series is much wider in range than the more focussed work of Beltrá. He started on the series in Southern Spain in 2003 and only finished in 2008; it covers a huge geographical area but has the single theme of climate change. However, it is important to note that his concern is not just of climate change but how it has “become an abstraction that few Europeans understand” (6) ; the photographs are designed to shock. There is a tendency in contemporary photography to represent the world in desaturated tones but Franklin like Joel Sternfeld revels in the natural colours of our planet and this, like Beltrá, gives us the contradiction of the beauty of decay, industrial waste, corruption and environmental vandalism.

Dream of Arcadia - Thomas Cole 1838

Dream of Arcadia – Thomas Cole 1838

The image I have chosen from Footprint also reveals Franklin’s eye for the ironic; the church of Santa Maria is all that remains of the Arcadian village of Anthochori after extensive lignite mining in the area. You won’t have missed the irony that the place that gave rise to the idea of the Arcadian landscape is now an open cast mine.

General View North over Boiler House, Battersea Power Station - Michael Collins 2006

General View North over Boiler House, Battersea Power Station – Michael Collins 2006

As mentioned by Julian Bell  the Sublime in contemporary art has spawned a whole series of sub-genres including techno-sublime, eco-sublime, Gothic sublime and the suburban sublime (4). In addition to these Alexander talks of  the industrial sublime as a recognisable category (2: p120). I am unsure whether Michael Collins has intentionally set out with the industrial sublime in mind but his Landscape and Industry series (7) is a fine example of it. Since the industrial revolution man has created monumental structures in the name of industry and commerce, from coal mines to great bridges and from cotton mills to power stations. Collins explores Britain from the perspective of this impact. His work is overtly objective, less critical; that say Beltrá or Franklin so not all that he captures is wholly bad or wholly good, it is just a pure record-photography statement of it being here.

The Peak District from the series Quarried - Colin Shaw 2016

The Peak District from the series Quarried – Colin Shaw 2016

Which brings me to, what I see as an important point; there is a significant risk that we view all landscape photography that reflects man’s industrial impact on the land as negative criticism. If this was the case Joe Cornish’s pastoral landscapes would be termed artistic criticism and that seems an unlikely caption to apply to his work. As previously discussed (here) we live in a man-made landscape, some of the results of this human intervention fit neatly into our perception of an arcadian or pastoral scene, a landscape view that is picturesque or a building that is monumental, an art-form in its own right; these are therefore acceptable and desirable interventions regardless of the environmental impact of their construction. However, a photograph of a power station, especially if it is nuclear, will probably be interpreted as a critique on the dangers of power generation or the present and future implications for the planet. We will sit as our desk to make this criticism warmed by our central heating system, under the electric light and using technology both built by and using power. Likewise we see a quarry as a blot on the landscape but might see the building built using the extracted stone as an art-form.

I see in these understandable and common hypocrisies a form of the Sublime that is less frequently discussed, perhaps it is a form of the Sublime characteristic of incomplete understanding, not a fear of the unknown but an unknowingness of realities. One photographer whom I much admire and who has, over a long career explored the realities of the rural British landscape is Colin Shaw. He documents industry in the context of the land and has explored farming (here), road building and more recently quarrying in the Peak District. Many of his photographs of quarries meet the definitions of the Sublime in terms of vastness, and the localised environmental impact could generate emotional reactions that speak to other Burkian ideas but beyond that he describes a working landscapes that create rural employment and provide resources that are essential components of our way of life. Like Collins, he neither applauds nor criticises, he just records a reality that exists and perhaps has to exist. I see his Peak District quarries as something quite different than Franklin’s open caste mine but others would no doubt disagree.

There is a more subtle area of the Sublime that Mike Kelley calls the “uncanny”:

“I see the Sublime as coming from the natural limitations of our knowledge: when we are confronted with something that’s beyond our limits of acceptability, to that threatens to expose some repressed thing, then we have this feeling of the uncanny”. (3)

Caves and Gorges from the series The Sublime - Mike Kelley 1984

Caves and Gorges from the series The Sublime – Mike Kelley 1984

In his 1984 series The Sublime, Mike Kelley explored a wide range of things that he believed fitted into his definition of being beyond our comprehension. This series investigates some  Burkian devices such as vastness but moves into more complex areas that might represent our bewilderment towards the acts of man and what he would see as our unconscious memories of trauma and the uncanny.

Innocence at the Painful Moment of its Supersedence from the series The Sublime - Mike Kelley 1984

Innocence at the Painful Moment of its Supersedence from the series The Sublime – Mike Kelley 1984

Whilst new Sublime subjects have been explored by contemporary artists and photographers there is a continuance of the traditions of representing awesome, magnificent and terrible natural events.

Banda Aceh, Sumatra - After the tsunami - Paolo Pellegrin 2005

Banda Aceh, Sumatra – After the tsunami – Paolo Pellegrin 2005

Otsuchi, Japan Man walking through wasteland - Chris Steele-Perkins 2011

Otsuchi, Japan Man walking through wasteland – Chris Steele-Perkins 2011

The Tsunami of 2005 which wrought havoc across tropical Asia and the tsunami of 2011 on Japan’s east coast have both been the subject of documentary photography. These were events of inconceivable scale that destroyed lives and livelihoods across huge areas and whose effects were long lasting. A tsunami is the epitome of something that is beyond our control and of a scale that lies beyond our imagination.

Spray-shaped drawings in an inner gallery of the Chauvet cave may depict a volcanic eruption - ca. 34,000 BC

Spray-shaped drawings in an inner gallery of the Chauvet cave may depict a volcanic eruption – ca. 34,000 BC

The tradition of recording natural distorters potentially dates back to man’s earliest attempts at visual art. Thirty-six thousand years ago is as far as we can get from contemporary art but I want to make the point that absolutely nothing is new; we have a remarkably condescending and patronising attitude to history in that we appear to believe that only now are our minds sophisticated enough to experience the full range of “human” emotions; the idea that pre-historic humans were less able to think or feel as we do is a sub-text of much that we learn about our ancestors. Phrases like “life was cheap” somehow suggest humans responded differently at an emotional level  in the past than we do  now.

My discussion of the history of the Sublime (here) suggests that it took an eighteenth century mind to describe it and that visual artists then started to attempt to represent it. However, recent analysis of the cave paintings at Chauvet and some others at Catalhojuk in Turkey suggest that pre-historic man observed and then represented volcanic eruptions thirty-six thousand years ago. The caves at Chauvet are thirty five kilometres from the Stromboli volcanoes in Northern Italy, a perfect and safe place from which to observe the lava being spewed two hundred metres into the sky. A Sublime experience that an early artist believed was worth recording.

Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples - Joseph Wright of Derby 1776

Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples – Joseph Wright of Derby 1776

If it stretches the point to suggest that tradition of recording Sublime volcanic eruptions began in pre-history there are plenty of more recent examples that show they interested artists in more modern times. I have already mentioned Joseph Wright of Derby’s paintings of Vesuvius in the context of Julian Bell’s Darvaza, noting the similarities in their use of dazzling light and there are may examples of photographers who have captured volcanic eruptions.

Volcanic eruptions are visually alluring displays of extreme light and dark and unquestionably Sublime but they also remind us that, when we discuss terrible events, Nature usually has the last word.

Indonesia. Island of Sunda Strait, between Java & Sumatra.The active volcano Krakatau - Bruno Barbey 1993.

Indonesia. Island of Sunda Strait, between Java & Sumatra.The active volcano Krakatau – Bruno Barbey 1993.



(2) Alexander, J.A.P. (2015) Perspectives on Place. London: Bloomsbury

(5) Beltrá, Daniel (2015) Spill. London: Gost

(6) Franklin, Stuart (2008) Footprint: Our Landscape in Flux. London: Thames and Hudson

(7) Collins, Michael (2014) Landscape and Industry. Stockport: Dewi Lewis


(1) DaLuz, David (2014) The Sublime Through the Eyes of Steven DaLuz ( accessed at Huffington Post 10.2.17) – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brandon-kralik/the-sublime-through-the-e_b_5691624.html

(3) Morley, Simon (2010) Starting into the Contemporary Abyss: The Contemporary Sublime (accessed at the Tate 6.2.17) – http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/staring-contemporary-abyss

(4) Bell, Julian (2012) Contemporary Art and the Sublime (accessed at the Tate 7.2.17) – http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/the-sublime/julian-bell-contemporary-art-and-the-sublime-r1108499

Riding, Christine & Llewellyn, Nigel (2012) British Art and the Sublime  (accessed at the Tate 7.2.17) – http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/the-sublime/christine-riding-and-nigel-llewellyn-british-art-and-the-sublime-r1109418

Smith, Laura (2003) Beautiful, Sublime (accessed at the University of Chicago 9.2.17) – http://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/beautifulsublime.htm

This entry was posted in 3 - The Beautiful and the Sublime, Exercises, Research and Reflection and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to 1.6 The Sublime in Contemporary Art

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