Notes on beauty and the sublime from Alexander (2015)

Summary (from loc 1010 to loc 1305)

  • Flickr could be seen as evidence that there is a universal sense of beauty – e.g. Umbrico‘s series “Suns” illustrating the universality of a sunset
  • Photography has played a part in elevating particular areas to a higher status, which is generally a political/social classification e.g. AONB, National Park
  • The picturesque is about “depoliticizing” the landscape, promoting a vision of social harmony – it is attributed to William Gilpin (in the 1780’s) to bridge a gap between Burke’s beauty and sublime
  • Gilpin produced a tourist guide to the Wye Valley, based on picturesque principles – compare with Keith Arnatt‘s “AONB” series taken in the same location but highlighting the less pastoral scenes
  • Gilpin’s guides perhaps began the tradition of taking photographs as a critical part of tourism, “a device perhaps for affirming the experience of travel” (loc 1131)
  • in recent years the picturesque has been subverted e.g. Kennard‘s “Haywain with Cruise Missiles”, and Mooney‘s “Behind the Scenes”.
  • picturesque imagery almost serves a social function, offering viewing pleasure and instilling calm … The picturesque reminds us that in times of uncertainty, we turn to a certain image of nature.” (loc. 1195)
  • summarising Burke – “where beauty was the domain of contentment and harmony … the sublime prompted unsettled feelings and emotional awakening” (loc 1208)
  • Friedrich‘s “Wanderer above the sea of fog” demonstrates the sublime – the figure is much larger than in the picturesque because he is engaging with the landscape, and uses the romantic device “Ruckenfigur” (back figure) to reflect a contemplative state
  • beauty and the sublime are not mutually exclusive, a sunset can trigger feelings of the sublime whilst being beautiful, but the picturesque has an inherent formalism that begins and ends within the picture, whereas the sublime cannot be contained in this way
  • Freud’s concept of the “uncanny” is essentially the same idea as the sublime: “both relate to a feeling of being displaced by, or being at the mercy of, a force greater than ourselves.” (loc. 1305)



If our desire to view/photograph sunsets comes from some subconscious awareness of beauty, why aren’t they the subject of all the early cave paintings? Isn’t it more likely that this is a learnt behaviour, induced from a young age by viewing such images?

The sunset itself may be a sublime experience, but the image doesn’t induce the same response (even in the repeated fashion of Umbrico’s work). The image is perhaps beautiful, though arguably it is picturesque, in that it presents a glorified and sanitised version of events, often cropped to remove extraneous features and highly saturated for emphasis.

There seems to be a lack of clarity about the scope of the sublime – Alexander suggests that a sunset is sublime, presumably because in the face of it we find ourselves considering our own place in the world, how small we are in comparison with nature. Yet I generally consider a sunset to be an uplifting experience – contemplative yes but in a positive manner, quite unlike a stormy sea or a vast mountain which has at least an element of fear (Freud’s “uncanny”). Is any awe-inspiring response sufficient for the sublime, or does there have to be more of an edge?


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