Not so simply sublime

The Sublime in Art (Tate Britain from May 2010): an exhibition that takes us beyond ‘art is what I like’ to asking why it is we like it. Like it or not, we’re into aesthetics. 

Discussions of the Sublime in art usually start with Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (punchy title), and the Tate in this case does just that. 

Turner’s storms and shipwrecks and de Loutherberg’s avalanches, Francis Danby’s biblical flood, Joseph Ward’s Gordale Scar and John Martin’s Last Judgement, they all take us to the edge – to a dramatic point where (in imagination) we fear for our very existence. The walls of Gordale Scar are unnaturally, threateningly high. The imploding earth at the Day of Reckoning is terminal. Awe also belongs to the Sublime, and Martin’s plains of heaven take the breath away. 

But the exhibition loses its way a little. 

John Collier’s North-West Passage focuses on Hudson adrift in his boat, Richard Dadd’s Return From Egypt pushes the boundaries of sanity (his own), Millais’s Dew-Drenched Furze and Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix celebrate love in very different ways. Any connection with the Sublime is tenuous.  All are mid-19th century or later, and we’re stretching definitions and timeframes here.

We’re closer with William Blake’s Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils. (Some title.) Hogarth has Satan and Death confronting each other, separated only by Sin. Two paintings bringing the Bible and Paradise Lost frighteningly to life. But even here there’s not the identification with experience that the Sublime needs really to make an impact. Blake and Hogarth’s are descriptive paintings, whereas we can imagine ourselves caught up in Danby’s flood or de Loutherberg’s avalanche. 

What about Orpen’s desolate World War I landscape, Zonnebeke. Sublime? 

Arguably it would have been better to have stayed closer to 18th century definitions, when Beauty, with its focus on form, the Sublime and the Picturesque came to define aesthetic sensibility. We’d have then had a real contribution to an understanding of the Sublime in art, rather than a catch-all from the Tate’s collection. Even if we define it as Romantic art, the net is still cast too wide.

I loved the paintings and the juxtapositions ask important questions. But as an exhibition on the Sublime as a movement, a period, a sensibility – well, to me it doesn’t quite work.

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