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Nature and the Sublime

Our current exhibition “Nature’s Hold” is part of a long tradition of nature in art. In the case of our exhibition we have three very different artists interpreting nature. Ryan Kelley creates singular trees from wire and stone. Through his extraordinary skill, Kelley can capture both the stillness found in trees and the motion of the wind blowing through the branches. Then there is Kirsten Bowen, who remarkably combines her painted landscapes, flowers, and forest scenes with poetic words. The combination of image and text takes her art to a new level where the mind is seeking letters and words within the image. Finally, ceramicist Anna M. White defies gravity with her “Natural Series” and “Stitched Series”. The ceramic pieces in these series’ show Anna’s command of clay with her cut vessels dripping in hand extruded vines and draped in cobwebs.

Nature has played a role in most of the major art movements over the years including the Impressionists, Fauvists, and Der Blaue Reiter group. But nature was front and center of Romanticism, a movement that encompassed music, literature, and art between 1800 and 1850. Its creation was a direct response to the industrial revolution. Romanticism not only celebrated nature but it also emphasized the individual, emotions, and glorification of the past – the pre-enlightenment past where we did not use science to explain everything.

Romanticism flourished all over Europe not just in the visual arts but in literature and music. In England, authors like Mary Shelley, the woman who brought us Frankenstein and her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley were at the forefront of the movement. English Painter J.M.W. Turner is also considered to be part of the Romantic Movement. Turner’s paintings were atmospheric and filled with washes of color that embodied the awesome beauty of the natural world.

waterfall, sherlock, turner, sublime, nature
The Reichenbach Falls by J.M.W. Turner

In Germany, the most noted Romantic artist is also a personal favorite of mine: Caspar David Friedrich. You may know Friedrich’s work without knowing his name. Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) is a very popular and timeless image that can be found on almost any print on demand website. However, the original is in Hamburg, Germany and is quite possibly the best example of another concept that is often tied to Romanticism. That concept is the sublime.

Fog, cliff, man on a cliff, mountain range, man in a suit, walking stick
Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) by Caspar David Friedrich

The sublime can be considered in two different ways and each way is appropriate for Romanticism. Immanuel Kant in Critique of Judgement defines the sublime as: “represented by a "boundlessness" (§ 23). Whereas, philosopher Edmund Burke believes that sublimity and beauty are mutually exclusive. Burke describes the sublime as being the cause of the strongest emotions which the individual is capable of feeling. The sublime may therefore produce pain, fear, or terror. However, these feelings soon pass because we realize we are safe and that we are not truly in any danger and can appreciate a work for the awe and wonder it inspires in us. Both of these ideas of the sublime can be applied to Friedrich’s painting.

What makes Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) sublime is that it is boundless, the wanderer looks over an almost impenetrable sea of fog which means he is standing on the peak of a mountain high above the fog. At the same time, at least for me, the thought of standing atop a mountain peak not holding onto anything and just having a walking stick fills me with terror. However, once you look past the elements of the painting that cause you discomfort you can be inspired by its unboudlessness and the awe it inspires. The beauty of the sublime is that we can experience those emotions in the safety of the museum, gallery, or at home via a work of art.

Nature, Romanticism, and the sublime are all connected. They were a way of dealing with an ever more industrialized world. What I love about Feldspar Gallery is that I get to experience nature and the sublime every day. The natural light that flows through the gallery combined with the inspirational work produced by Ryan, Anna, and Kirsten based on their individual interpretation of nature provide me with the sublime and beautiful. Their work makes me forget about our increasing dependence on technology and allows me to get lost in beauty. (Even though I am writing this blog on a computer and putting it on our website), there are moments when I feel the boundlessness and the awe of the sublime.

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