Contemporary Art and the Sublime
The sublime as it gets made
A painting by the author
On my return home, I represented what I had seen on a canvas eight-foot wide. On the crater’s far side, I placed a small male figure, just over an inch high, standing turned towards it, his palms raised to face the upward surge of heat. The figure functions as an indicator of scale and equally obviously as a testimonial. This is I, it tells the viewer, I the artist: I witnessed what I am showing you. I was a tourist who came close to this spectacle and now I wish to draw you close to it likewise. With that objective in mind, I took two chief decisions in translating the sketches and photos I had made at the original site into a picture intended for a British gallery wall. I chose to crop what could be seen of the crater’s round rim, so that there is no central foreground and from the picture’s base all is fire. And so as to set that fire ablaze, I took the white-primed canvas – this was my first act in marking it – leant it at an angle, and poured down, from what would become its base, a loose turpentine solution of a very strong yellow, letting the liquid stain and sediment however it chanced to run.
A tradition of the pictorial sublime
Wright of Derby, an acute barometer of intellectual trends, undoubtedly painted with an awareness of Burke’s 1757 Enquiry. He takes up a challenge that Burke doubted painters could meet: for the young Irishman argued that ‘painting, when we have allowed for the pleasure of imitation, can only affect simply by the images it presents’7; whereas the words used in poetry can affect us ‘much more strongly’8 than the things they represent. Poetry, therefore, with its suggestive obscurity, was the art that could bring us closest to the sublime – ‘the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling’;9 a state of ‘astonishment’ including a ‘degree of horror’ that ‘anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force’.10 Burke contended that ‘darkness’ – the darkness of words dying away into silence – ‘is more productive of sublime ideas than light’, the condition within which paintings present their static imagery. And yet he allowed that ‘such a light as that of the sun, immediately exerted on the eye, as it overpowers the sense, is a very great idea’.11
The scale of the sublime
The content of the sublime: global
The content of the sublime: cosmological
The content of the sublime: theological
Nonetheless, various strands in the intrinsically extra-religious art of the sublime might correspond to various ways of religiously approaching God. One, the subject of much exegesis, is the via negativa, the attempt to come to God by way of what he is not. Interpreters of modern painting have been fond of characterising any blocked-off vista, or any point at which expression-driven brushwork collapses into the muteness of ‘mere paint’, as an analogue for a failure to discover the divine within the visible – or even as an attempt to jump the viewer into his own spiritual crisis. To come at this critical line reductively, all that is being reconfirmed here is that painting (in parallel, famously, with British politics) ‘doesn’t do God’. But painting has a predisposition to dual effects and paradoxical: at its mutest it is liable to be at its most eloquent; its darknesses may dazzle. Witness the archetypal modernist moment of 1915, Kazimir Malevich painting his Black Square (fig.11)while rhapsodically declaring that, through this ‘zero of form’:
I have released all the birds from the eternal cage ...
I have untied the knots of wisdom and set free the consciousness of colour! ...
I have overcome the impossible ...26
The sublime as it gets spoken
A genealogy of the contemporary sublime: Newman to Lyotard
A genealogy of the contemporary sublime: Kelley to Tuymans
The limits of the sublime
How to cite
Julian Bell, ‘Contemporary Art and the Sublime’, in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, Tate Research Publication, January 2013, https://www