February 15, 2004

Romanticism & the sublime

In aesthetics the category of the sublime is an important one for the representation of the Australian landscape. It enables us to make sense of the harshness of the landscape; a menace of nothingness that threatens death. The sublime refers to the endless desert, the white heat and death by thirst. This conception of the sublime is very pervasive in colonial settler discourse, where has historically been contrasted with the lovely, soft green English garden in the civilized cities. (More here on the sublime in Australian cinema.)

In his 'A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful' (1757) Edmund Burke equates the sublime with astonishment, fear, pain, roughness, and obscurity and the beautiful with a set of opposite qualities (calmness, safety, smoothness, clarity, and the like). With the romantics the sublime becomes associated with the turbulent chaos of mountain behind mountain, rolled in confusion; dark rocky crags that impede ones way; Alpine precipices etc:
Turner, The Passage of the St Gothard, 1804

The sublime referred to awe-inspiring works of nature such as the cataract, avalanches, volcanoes, black jungles full of wild beasts and earthquakes. It was linked to the appalling or the horrible that threatened to overwhelm human beings. The colonial settlers put new content into the sublime as the awesome power of nature.

In exploring the romantic pictorial conventions in Australia Mandy Martin reworks the pictorial convention of the sublime. It's no longer the European dark and gloomy one found in Salvator Rosa (also here.)

The sublime in Australia is lighter and much more light filled:

Mandy Martin, Horizons of Expectation, Salvator Rosa Series 2----1999.

Major Mitchell's explorations in Queensland involved, and evoked, colonial settler dreams of conquering the vast inland space. Settlers are emigrant with little hope of returning home. Their narrative is one of displacement and traumatic severance from their home. They project their expectations into the future. Mitchell's explorations were an early version of 'on the road again' heading for the unknown. Hopefully, they will find El Dorado.

Mandy Martin, Passage, Salvator Rosa Series 111-----2000.

There is little hint of the technological sublime in this romanticism. Technology has yet to join, and supplant, nature as the source of the sublime.

When it does it becomes the sublime becomes technology out of control: a Frankenstein.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at February 15, 2004 01:28 PM | TrackBack
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