Painting the Sublime

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Painting the Sublime

<p>The sublime is a feeling of awe as immortalised by the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich or the menacing sunsets of Turner or Eugene von Guérard’s depictions of Australia. But in order to

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The sublime is a feeling of awe as immortalised by the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich or the menacing sunsets of Turner or Eugene von Guérard’s depictions of Australia. But in order to understand their work, we must first come to terms with the sublime. Burke theorised the sublime as a ‘delightful horror’ and Kant as emerging from discord. For these philosophers and the painters influenced by them, the sublime captured wonder and awe tinged with dread. Sublime painting covers a range of painters from the 19th Century to the present day, exploring the awe and awfulness of nature, but also modernity, modernism and depictions of existential trauma.



  • History of the sublime: Toward a taxonomy of the sublime: what is the sublime? What are its visual features? This first lesson focuses less on paintings and more of ideas, as we will see that for sublime paintings to emerge the sublime had to be given a certain visuality. The sublime was once associated with elevated oratory, rhetorical flourish, and moral fervour. The word itself has an alchemical origin, denoting the transformation of one lowly substance to an ideal other-state. As such, the sublime was not initially associated with a visuality as such, but with a process of transformation, which admittedly had some visual associations such as in rhetoric where metaphors bestow ideas with a visual force. However, when John Dennis and Joseph Addison explored the Alps, they discovered geographies beyond their very British imaginings. In their attempt to transcribe and express their visceral experience of a nature far from the pristine ideal, they struggled with language, describing a sort of misshapen beauty. Their revelations would lead Edmund Burke to conclude that experience wasn’t principally concerned with thought but rather with mechanical, bodily reactions to sights. Burke then divided experiences of nature into the sublime and the beautiful, and accords a visuality to the sublime that it previously did not possess. Kant would extend but also challenge Burke by bringing reason back into the realm of aesthetic contemplation and once again posing a challenge to visual representation with the mathematic sublime. As such, we will raise the question as to whether Romantic artists sought to induce an experience of the sublime or only to depict sublime experiences in order to document them as is sometimes alleged.
  • British Painting, Turner and beyond: JMW Turner was perhaps the greatest British painter who ever lived and one of the most sublime painters. This lesson will touch of other painters but it will focus primarily on Turner. Turner’s works are primarily associated with menacing sunsets and stormy clouds, but his works capture various sublime spectacles, immortalising scenes of war, the awful power of time to wither away ancient ruins, the power of technology, the centrality of the subject’s imagination to the sublime, and the unrepresentable horror of the slave trade. Moreover, Turner can be framed as a proto-modernist, with unfinished canvases depicting oceanic fume. But there is a political focus to be discerned in Turner’s paintings of the sea; not only was there the memory of Trafalgar, and the threat of naval battle but the power of the emerging empire and the “discovery” of “new” lands and the promise of adventure. To understand Turner’s paintings requires an attention to their visual features as well as their philosophical and political context. It is telling that Turner chooses to depict the seas and tends to frame British landscapes with a sense of paucity or decay. European landscapes were viewed increasingly as the old world and the New World of the Americas as possessing a vitality in contrast. We will come to look at the paintings of Frederic Edwin Church and other depiction of the Americas such as the painters Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt.
  • Germany, Norway and Australia: Caspar David Friedrich is one of the most celebrated German painters of the sublime. His sublime focuses on ice, sea, fog, time and age, and the abyss, and Christian and pagan symbolism. His work’s influence can be discerned in many of the great German and Norwegian painters of the sublime, especially associated with the Düsseldorf school of painting. Eugene von Guérard was a member of the school and would become a celebrated painter of Australian bush landscapes.
  • Modernist eruption, and mechanism: Modernist painters such as Franz Marc portrayed the destruction of the wildness and the death of animals through imagery associated with the sublime. Many modernist painters worshiped nature as a spiritual and sublime force, including Georgia O’Keefe. But modernism also opened up an analysis of trauma and destruction. For François Lyotard the avant-garde artists of the twentieth century were innovators of the sublime, creating a disparity between the thing signified and its mode of representation. Painting became divorced from pictorial literalism, coming instead to a reduction of subjects to shapes, caricatures or broken up and divided by cubists, or enveloped by the speed of futurism.
  • Malevich, Abstract Expressionism, the Sublimity of Pure Feeling and the Traumatic Sublime: Malevich conjures the sense of the infinite and pure in his celebrated painting of a black square against a white canvas. Such a work become the supreme act of painting’s power of cosmic expressionism, bestowing an absoluteness to geometry. The ability for paint to resemble nothing but itself while nevertheless remaining expressive. Rothko and Ad Reinhardt also painted works of almost pure expressiveness, with minimalist compositions. Rothko believed his works could evoke a pure state of emotion, of the chasm of feeling. Yet returning to Malevich, the black painting of Rothko and Ad Reinhardt also express a sense of the modernist void. Further we will examine the sculptural works and paintings of Lee Bontecou.
  • Video art, installation and photography as painting: This lesson will look at whether modern mediums not only borrow from paintings but become paintings without paint. This lesson looks at the photographic work of Bill Henson as examples of the sublime but it will also examine the video art of Bill Viola and the way Viola captures a sense of painting. We will also examine the Australian artists Joyce Hinterding and David Haines' works which explore the sublime via digital mediums.
  • Contemporary Painting and the Sublime: There are still contemporary Romantic painters today, including Australia’s Rick Amor. There is a continuity between Amor’s paintings with Turner and Friedrich. Abstract sublimities also exist with the artist Gerhard Richter. However, very often the sublime is revisioned and refigured today. For instance, the great German artist .Anselm Kiefer’s layers of paint on his canvas suggest a protruding profusion of trauma, and gesture to the problems, traumas and memories of Germanic myth. We will also examine Yvette Gellis' work and also pop art in relation to other types of sublime.


By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Gain a critical understanding of what the sublime is; its relation to an excess of representation, its proximity to the unrepresentable; the sublime as a visceral response and as a form of aesthetic contemplation; and its key visual associations and signifiers from landscapes to the figurative and abstract.
  2. Acquire skills related to visual and historical analysis.
  3. Introduced to key theorists of contemporary art.
  4. Gain an overview of the manifold ways the sublime intersects with painting.