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Introduction to Sublime and Picturesque Aesthetics

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In this session, we continue our exploration of Romantic poetry. We now turn to aesthetics. In today’s session, by way of an introduction, we will be looking at the two key aesthetic strategies of the period: sublime and picturesque aesthetics. Translations of the Greek Longinus’s On the Sublime first appeared in English translation in 1680 but the major treatise that popularises the theory of the sublime appears in 1757: Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. There were also tracts on aesthetics and philosophy by Immanuel Kant, John Dennis, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury as well as poetic explorations such as Mark Akenside’s The Pleasures of the Imagination (1744). All of these together contributed to generate an interest in aesthetic models. Burke elaborated two key models: the sublime and the beautiful. In addition to these two opposing aesthetic devices, a third category emerges in the same period, the category of the picturesque aesthetic. From gardening, landscaping and paintings, which sought to render the landscape ‘pretty as a picture’, emerged the theory of picturesque painting, eventually finding its resonance in the poetry of the era as well. Commentators such as William Gilpin, Uvedale Price and others working with or in antagonism to landscape artists such as Humphrey Repton and ‘Capability’ Brown theorised ruins, the very systematically ordered landscape, the availability and very careful placing of exotic objects like the Chinese pagoda and of course an aesthetics of poverty, a politically problematic aesthetic. The Sublime: The sublime is an aesthetic of fear, awe and wonder generated at the sight of things that are very often beyond human cognition, comprehension and frames of understandings, things which have ill-defined borders, for instance, such as vast seas, mountains, landscapes. Edmund Burke’s definition was this: ‘Whatever is in any sort terrible or is conversant about terrible objects or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime…The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature… is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other”. In other words, the sublime unsettles the mind, disturbs and terrifies us. The best way to understand the effects of the sublime aesthetic is to look at paintings from 1750-1850 period. Philip James De Loutherbourg, An Avalanche in the Alps, 1803 Image source: Tate, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/de-loutherbourg-an-avalanche-inthe-alps-t00772 Philip James De Loutherbourg’s An Avalanche in the Alps is a well-known painting. If you pay attention to the image, you see that the people are slanted towards safety from the descending avalanche. The painting features the rather craggy and desolate landscape of the Alps. What we notice is that the human figures seem very insignificant in this image. That is the key here. What we notice is that in this vast expanse, this panoramic nature, man occupies a very small space. That is the sublime. It is the recognition that we as humans are insignificant before what we see around us. This recognition is the cause for the production of a sublime aesthetic. Terror is what is at stake. JMW Turner, Snow Storm – A Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, exhibited 1842 Image source: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-snow-storm-steam-boat-off-aharbours-mouth-n00530 JMW Turner’s Snow Storm – Steam-Boats off a Harbour’s Mouth, first exhibited in 1842. In this image, it is difficult to discern with any degree of clarity, the outlines of the ship because the ship which is a man-made, cultural product, is swathed in the snowstorm. Nature’s fury continuing unabated perhaps for some time more or less demolishes any outline of the ship. John Martin, The Great Day of his Wrath, 1851-53 Image Source: Tate, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/martin-the-great-day-of-his-wrathn05613 Then there is John Martin, 1851- 53, a little beyond the conventional timeframe of the Romantics. In The Great Day of His Wrath, you see that the heavens seems to be splitting, the horizon is on fire, there is lightning slashing right across the top of the painting, there are flames, rocks, lava… What we see is the earth exploding and again, if we pay we see that the humans are quite insignificant in this scene. Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818 Image Source: Kunsthalle Hamburg, https://www.hamburger-kunsthalle.de/en/nineteenthcentury This, now, is a more interesting image. Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog portrays a well-clad man looking out over a horizon. If we pay close attention to the image, we see that the boundaries are not very clear, the frame of the landscape is vast and drifting. In each case what we see is the human reduced in size, and Nature scaled up, as fog, as storm, as climatic conditions or as geology. The sublime inspires fear when we can no longer compute the expanse, it is an aesthetic that spills over borders. There is a sublimity of endless repetition as well. When we look at poetic texts like Shelley’s Mont Blanc, we encounter the sublime: of mountains so vast and so towering that we understand human insignificance. Gothic texts of the 18th and 19th century also made use of the sublime. Description of the moors in the Brontes, for instance, are literary representation of the sublime or what you can think of as a literary sublime. This means, the sublime is connected to a strong sense of self-preservation: that humanity is under threat. The sublime has to be overcome in order to gain a sense of self. William Havell, Parys Mountain Copper Mine, 1803 Image source: https://i2.wp.com/gwallter.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/ParysMountain.jpg Shifting the ground away from nature, painters like William Havell developed an industrial sublime showing the human working classes in the midst of very large machinery. In Havell’s Parys Mountain Copper Mine (1803), nature in the form of the geological structure which is the rock has been carved using industrial machinery but if we continue to pay attention what we discover is that even with all the technological apparatus, human beings are dwarfed by what nature is. Aesthetic theories such as sublime have had an influence across Europe and America. As a result, scholars have examined the American sublime, the imperial sublime and several other variants. Psychoanalytic and other studies have also been a part of the theoretical approach, for obvious reasons, since the sublime is an aesthetic of fear and incomprehension. As a result of this emphasis on comprehension, control and overcoming of obstacles, the sublime has been seen by feminist critics in particular as embodying yet again a masculine and patriarchal ethos disguised as aesthetics. Numerous feminist critics have discerned a feminist and sometimes a feminine sublime as well. In the twentieth century, theorisation of the sublime has occurred extensively in philosophical texts from Jean-François Lyotard to Jacques Derrida. We also have the technological sublime, the digital sublime and other models for the contemporary era. The Picturesque: While the sublime is an aesthetic of awe or terror, there is also an aesthetic of organized land which contemplates the aesthetically pleasing, satisfying image. This is the aesthetic of the picturesque. The term literally meant “as a picture”. It was an aesthetic that sought to equate, so to speak, the manicured, ordered landscape and the painting of these landscapes. There was also a tangential interest in ‘the aesthetics of poverty’, where the poor hovels, cottages and lands of the poor were deemed to be picturesque. The aesthetics of poverty is clearly a political aesthetic. Theorists like Gilpin believed that perfect buildings were not picturesque and some imperfection was necessary. The picturesque had a particular politics linked to property, class, gender and social relations. The landscaping of property was something only a landowner could do. The ‘improvement’, a favourite term for picturesque advocates, was about the right to alter the land. The picturesque insisted on variety, but variety ordered. In an attempt to present ideal landscapes that would fit the picture, the picturesque often erased human presence, especially of labour which might have been seen as unappealing, and replaced it with rocks, trees, fauna, flora, and even some signs of the wild. In other cases, it showcased labour serving the land to make it beautiful. Very often, the picturesque had a prospect view. A prospect view is when the landowner stands gazing over his well-ordered and productive fields. The prospect view is an ownership view. So, the rural remain the mainstay of picturesque aesthetic. We see an emphasis on labor, land, poverty, organised lands and some wilderness in Thomas Gainsborough, John Constable, Turner and others. Let us look at some of their work. Thomas Gainsborough, Mr and Mrs Andrews, 1750 Image Source: The National Gallery, https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/thomasgainsborough-mr-and-mrs-andrews In Thomas Gainsborough’s famous painting, Mr and Mrs Andrews, we see the depiction of a very ordered land. There is a boundary: the hedge. There is productive, harvested material. In the background, we can see sheep or some cattle grazing. We need to note a couple of things here: The man is clearly the owner. He has a gun to protect his woman, his animal and his land. So we see how the aesthetic of the picturesque ties in with questions of ownership and the masculine ethos of being a land owner. Thomas Gainsborough, The Market Cart, 1786 Image Source: The National Gallery, https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/thomasgainsborough-the-market-cart John Constable, The Haywain, 1821 Image Source: The National Gallery, https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/johnconstable-the-hay-wain JMW Turner, Crossing the Brook, 1815 Image Source: Tate, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-crossing-the-brook-n00497 Thomas Gainsborough’s other image, The Market Cart is a glorification of the rural ideal as is John Constable’s The Haywain and Turner’s Crossing the Brook. Thus, we see that the picturesque is in sharp contrast to the sublime and it is primarily about a peaceful landscape but one which had a very clear controlling authority. The rural scenes in these paintings sought to make English countryside more attractive than the city – a sensibility and ideology endorsed by writers such as Wordsworth. It was an aesthetic, as contemporary scholars note, of land ownership disguised as disinterested observation of the land. The picturesque influenced painters such as William Hodges and Thomas and Samuel Daniells, famous for their picturesque Indian paintings, commissioned by the East India Company and others. You can see more images and paintings from the Tate Gallery’s collection on the sublime and the picturesque. Why are these aesthetics important? First of all, these aesthetic moved between forms and genres, from painting to literature. Secondly, these aesthetics were very useful political devices. They enabled the poets or the writers or painters to code social relations as aesthetics, so that instead of saying “it is terrible that these people are poor”, one could say “how beautiful that the poor appear in these paintings”. These aesthetic models converted questions of social relations, economic relations and power relations into aesthetic strategies. As Terry Eagleton has repeatedly warned us through The Ideology of the Aesthetic Work (1991), aesthetics can never be neutral depictions of beauty. Aesthetics have very clear politics, politics that are central to social relations, gender relations and questions of power. So is important for us to understand that when we are reading Wordsworth’s description of say Tintern Abbey or looking at Gainsborough’s images of the country house and the rural aristocrats, we need to be able to caution ourselves that these are political aesthetics.