Have you ever gone to the gallery with your uncle and as you’re watching him stare deep into a Caspar David Friedrich painting, a look of slight terror appears on his face as he gazes at the rough sea? That look on your uncle’s face is part of art! Today we’re going to talk about this effect that philosophers have called “the sublime” — the sensation that you feel when you look at something immeasurable in scale and sense that you’re almost nothing in the face of it.
We all might be feeling a little small lately — life during the pandemic has shrunk our worlds down to the size of our apartments, and “outside” can actually feel pretty huge at the moment. Nature is gargantuan: it’s full of canyons, huge waterfalls, towering mountains. This feeling of being tiny is shared by all of us at some point — and it’s a feeling artists have tried to capture for centuries.
I’m Professor Lise (not really a professor) and this is Art 101 (not really a class). We’re here to go on a deep dive into an idea, an artwork or a story from the art world that may be controversial, inexplicable, or just plain weird.
The idea of the sublime came up in the 1st century AD when Roman philosopher Longinus referred to it as something elevated or great. At the time, he was actually writing about rhetoric; later on, thinkers grafted the concept onto ideas about aesthetics. The sublime became something that ran parallel to beauty — but invoked a sort of horror. In the 18th century, writers talked about it when they travelled— it was a word that expressed the feeling you got when you stood at the edge of a cliff, looked into a volcano, or saw the sky stretching out above you.
So basically, if you’re looking at a painting in which a man is staring out at the unknown, as in Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich, you are feeling this sensation, the sublime. Partly because you are a spectator and not actually in danger, the scene can provoke a sort of spiritual and almost-physical horror — but because we know we’re safe, it’s still pleasurable. We’re scared and attracted at the same time.
Artists made work trying to conjure this sensation for centuries. Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, painted in 1818-19, is based on a true story where survivors of a shipwreck stared out into the rough empty sea. The sense of hopelessness you get when you look into the painting is intensified by the neverending seascape around the stranded men. But we’re not in danger ourselves — we’re experiencing the sublime.
John Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows in 1823 sits under an ominous stormy sky — a metaphor for anxiety about the future of the Anglican Church. These artworks feature overwhelming weather, elements, and landscapes, and they echo not only our fears in real life but the beauty that comes from the power of nature.
In the 1940s, painter Barnett Newman wrote an essay called “The Sublime is Now” and tried to paint the sublime in huge monochromatic works like Vir Heroicus Sublimis of 1950-51, where you can feel pretty insignificant in front of the massive field of red. (By the way, if Barnett Newman makes you mad, you might want to check out this episode of Art 101 from a little while ago.)
Some artists have tried to capture the sensation of the sublime using the earth itself. Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels from 1976 uses massive concrete tubes to harness the sun’s light and create an almost spiritual experience.
And Kanye’s favourite artist, James Turrell, began developing his Roden Crater in Arizona in the 1970s where, if you lie inside it, you can see the actual curve of the earth. It’s worth a visit, flat-earthers.
The sublime is all over art of the later 20th century, and into the 21st. Works by photographer Ed Burtynsky use scale and the natural landscape to create something terrifying — like in Oil Spill #2, where a large vessel looks totally helpless in the face of the water swirling around it.
We all feel pretty small right now. The pandemic sucks. And it’s not the sublime — this is a really real feeling of danger. But we’ll live through it and artists will make work about it and we’ll experience it differently, once we’re out of harm’s way. And your uncle will have that beautiful look of terror on his face at a gallery with you, in person, in the future.
See you next time, safe and sound — I hope — feeling newly incredulous about the world outside your home, for another edition of Art 101.
Artworks featured in this video:
1m44s – Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich (1818)
2m4s – The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault (1818-1819)
2m28s – Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows by John Constable (1831)
2m58s – Vir Heroicus Sublimis by Barnett Newman (1950-1951)
3m13s – Sun Tunnels by Nancy Holt (1976)
3m23s – Roden Crater by James Turrell (began in 1977)
3m38s – Oil Spill #2 by Edward Burtynsky (2010)
Art Fx #29: The Wilderness Collection by Stephanie Aykroyd – Huntsville Doppler
Art Fx is a year-long series on Huntsville Doppler featuring Huntsville-area visual artists.
The Wilderness Collection is a series of original oil landscapes on canvas by Stephanie Aykroyd.
“In a remote region of Ontario, Canada, is a land filled with old-growth pine, smooth granite outcrops, and clear waters. Like most wilderness areas, it is ancient and sacred,” writes Stephanie of her inspiration for this series. “The ancestors of this land left carvings in the rock, barely visible now, but their presence is strong. They travelled this land that you’re camping on and paddling through. Perhaps they sat on the same rock overlooking this lake…
“The storm has just passed and everything feels deeply still and peaceful.
“You can smell the pine and damp earth as you watch the mist drift across the far hills and light break through the clouds. A loon calls in the distance, and you smile, knowing that you belong.”
“Limitless” (left) and “In the Quietest Moments” are original oil paintings in Stephanie Aykroyd’s The Wilderness Collection
About the artist
I live with my love Alex, on 27 acres north of Toronto, Ontario in a beautiful part of the Canadian Shield.
I’m happiest in my studio or outside with my hands in the garden, searching for rocks, making pigments, portaging a canoe, or paddling the remote wilderness.
Over the years I always managed to paint, but it wasn’t a regular practice. I held back from making it my career and it was usually the first thing to be shelved when life got overwhelming. Far too often I focused on others at the expense of my own creative expression. However…
I’ve always dreamed of doing my art full-time and I’m a firm believer that when we set clear intentions & do the work, amazing things unfold!
By 2020, the need to create art became too strong and too important to ignore. Why keep putting off the very thing that feeds my soul?? This is the best decision I could have made and I haven’t looked back since!
Stephanie’s work is available for purchase at stephanieaykroyd.com.
See more local art in Doppler’s Art Fx series here.
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Departures at high-profile Barcelona museum provoke anger in art world – The Guardian
Oak Bay sets aside $27,000 for Indigenous art at muncipal hall – Saanich News
Oak Bay’s newly renovated chambers will feature a new piece of public art commissioned from an Indigenous artist.
The district allocated one per cent of the budget for the hall renovation, $7,000 to public art. Combined with the annual public art allocation, the district has $27,000 to spend on a work for municipal hall.
The move to work with a local artist, specifically from the Lekwungen speaking people on whose land Oak Bay sits, was unanimous among council members.
“This is a rare opportunity to have the resources to do that and as the renovated municipal hall reopens, have that be one of the centrepieces,” Coun. Andrew Appleton said during council discussions July 12.
Still in the earliest of stages, conversation surrounded the how of the project.
Oak Bay is between arts laureates, but liaison Coun. Hazel Braithwaite said the public arts committee is taking on that leadership role.
Coun. Tara Ney lamented the district’s lack of policy or set protocol for engaging in such initiatives.
She voiced a need to create pathways for engaging so it’s not done piecemeal, and instead with confidence and in culturally appropriate way.
Mayor Kevin Murdoch, who is routinely in conversation with local First Nations leadership, said the district is doing well in the absence of policy, always seeking guidance and building relationships in small ways.
Council agreed working toward something more formal is something they could pursue.
“This does require more formality and we need to start to establish those connections so we’re consistent and so we’re completely aware and sensitive to their needs,” Coun. Cairine Green said.
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