Friday, April 20, 2018

Entrance into the Sublime: Impactful Landscapes of the 19th Century

The sublime is a concept that has occupied the hearts and minds of scholars, artists, and the “every-man” alike. Indeed, we are all made in the image of God, and I believe that that means we are made capable of great emotional and spiritual imagination, and capable of expressing this through art. Often times, people tend to associate the Sublime with a positive experience, my goal of this curatorial journey is to attempt to reform this view. Just as God experiences a range of “emotions” as it is described in scripture, so too can we experience a spectrum of emotional extremes.
The subliminal feelings I present in this exhibit are dominion, inspiration, destiny, conflict, fear, and transcendence. During the 19th century, it became popular to present sublime subject matter to the viewer through representations of nature, specifically in the form of landscape paintings. The industrial revolution was at its height during the beginning of the 19th century, as was Manifest Destiny. The doctrines that lead to these movements were driven by a hunger for dominion over the earth. However, this was not an effort to minimize the value of nature, but rather to take advantage of all the wealth and value that nature could offer man. Embarking on this frontier had its pros and its cons; benefits and drawbacks. In this exhibit, I will be presenting a progression of landscape paintings that cause us to consider the power of nature.

Albert Bierstadt, Sunrise on the Matterhorn, after 1875, Oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The flagship of this exhibit, with its indisputable beauty, this painting represents “inspiration”. With a focus on the use of color, scale, and perspective, the viewer is invited into the conversation between the mountain side and the silhouetted trees reaching up to it. The generations of man before us have woken up with the rest of nature to the Sunrise. It marks the beginning of what is to come. Albert Bierstadt was an american landscape painter, and he traveled to Europe to capture the natural sights that he experienced there and bring them back to his patrons in the states. This painting communicates the feeling of awe that its maker experienced when he found himself gazing into the stature of the Matterhorn at sunrise.

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1819, Oil on canvas, Hamburger Kunsthalle

A trademark painting of the Romanticism movement, Friedrich transports his audience out of the smog filled, densely populated, all too mundane cities back to the frontier of uncharted wilderness. The subliminal feeling insighted within the viewer may be attributed to the position of “dominion” that the figure represented in this painting has. Dressed as a modern worker, we can empathize with this faceless man as he gazes over the fog-shrouded stones before him. He has climbed to the top of a mountain alone, and has sole ownership of the view which he has afforded himself. This painting invites us to contemplate the freedom and fruitfulness of the unclaimed domains of earth.

Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada, California, 1868, Oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Following suit with the previous two themes, we are once again invited to explore. Bierstadt was one of the leading landscape painters during Manifest Destiny; a doctrine that encouraged unrestrained westward expansion of the United States. Bierstadt traveled out west with some of his fellow artists to explore, contemplate, and sketch the scenery of the “wild west”. His goal was to meet the needs of his hungry patrons who wanted to feed on glorified representations of the land that they hoped to some day industrialize and reside within. With rays of light piercing through the clouds, and deer not frightened by the viewers presence, it was the “destiny” of the viewer to eventually claim this land for themselves. This painting and its subject matter is calling them there.

Philip James De Loutherbourg, An Avalanche in the Alps, 1803, Oil on canvas, Tate

As an entrepreneurial artist in the Theater industry, Loutherbourg introduces some drama into this collection. This painting transports to a climax being experienced by a group of explorers, fearing for their lives. The subliminal experience here is “fear”, as the eerily lit snapshot of this stony landscape is interrupted by the landslide of stone and dust. The painter makes a clear connection between his experience in theater and nature; the drama of this scene insights feelings of excitement and horror as we empathize with the explorers who are cowering in anticipation of being crushed by the avalanche.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Cremorne Lights, 1872, Oil on canvas, Tate

Through unique use of dilute oil paint, Whistler immerses this landscape of a the large River Thames in a shroud of ominous fog. The subliminal theme of this painting is “conflict” between the activity on either side of the river. On one side, smoke stacks rise above the industrialized city; on the other side, large rectangular buildings congregate, decorated with bright lights that pierce through the fog over the river. These buildings are part of the Cremorne Pleasure Gardens, where industrial laborers find a reprieve from their work. In addition, the perspective gives the river an overwhelmingly vast scale, with almost ocean like scale, since it stretches out all the way to the horizon and continues on out of view. This seems to represent the conflict and discontinuity between the goals of the city and the gardens, as if they are at war with one another.

John Martin, The Plains of Heaven, 1851-3, Oil on canvas, Tate

To conclude this exhibit, Martin paints a picture of “transcendence”, with a landscape that is divided into two spaces; a worldly space and an otherworldly space. We get a glimpse of nature and man’s place in it. A Group of women congregate together atop the highest hill in the earthly foreground, they are playing harps and reaching up to the glory of the distant background of mountains and clouds. Here we are invited to consider the supernatural sublime qualities of the world around us; we are called to join these women in reaching outwards and upwards to the unknowable potential of what the vast earth has to offer, and to consider what we have to offer it.

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