Sublime: 25 Years of The Wesfarmers Collection
2 October 2002 - 25 November 2002
Special Exhibitions Gallery
It is wonderful that the work can now achieve the coherence and expansiveness of the sublime, because it felt positively pathological at the time of its production. It was an incredible struggle of imagining processes of drawing in reverse, a half grasped sense of some kind of story and imagery from the past coming out, and my often strong sense of some other artist near me, in this case Nolan and the Kelly series. All of this memory stuff is very involuted, confused, physical. I hacked and scraped the wood to literally imbed a whole jumble of half-baked drawings that were just a field of associations in relation to the final form of the work. It was a very exhilarating piece to do!
Mike Parr, May 2002, on producing K-naks, the gift of tongues, p 115
When Mike Parr writes of the exhilaration of making K-naks, he raises a concept historically considered to be at the core of 'the sublime': intensity of feeling and the attempt to make sense of profound experiences, the kinds of experiences that elude easy description or expression in words alone.
The sublime has been discussed by philosophers in terms of the effect on the psyche of encounters that overwhelm the senses and emotions and lead the mind to a heightened awareness of what lies beyond the everyday. The word has been used in another sense as well, to denote the feelings of awe that can be experienced in contemplating the infinitude of space and time in a scientific context. Immanuel Kant called it 'the mathematical sublime'. What unites these two facets of the sublime, is the common human response to that which is beyond comparison and beyond comprehension.
Since the nineteenth century, in addition to depicting the sublime in nature, artists have explored the idea in the full range of human experience: in the realm of the psyche and the spirit and in the interconnections between people, nature and the wider cosmos. How the visual image might represent the more intangible experiences of the psyche, especially in regard to its apprehension of natural phenomena, endures as one of the fundamental concerns of art.
The Wesfarmers collection is extensive and diverse. As we set out to mark its twenty-fifth anniversary, the idea of a thematic approach suggested itself as a way to represent both the broad chronological span of the collection and the range and quality of the work. The concept of the sublime then emerged as an interesting and relevant theme on which to base such a survey - one that could offer a new perspective on the works in the collection and highlight some of the interconnections that traverse the diversity of the holdings.
A STARTING POINT: THE SUBLIME
The sensory overload that it is possible to feel in the midst of nature at its most elemental is an experience of 'the sublime' that captivated European artistic imagination from the late eighteenth century. This was largely in response to the emergence of the sublime as one of the 'hot issues' in eighteenth century philosophy. Two figures were central to the debate and their views have formed the basis of theoretical discussion on the subject that continues to evolve today. In Britain, the discussion was led by Edmund Burke and later in Germany, by Immanuel Kant. Burke's essay A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), is regarded as one of the most influential documents of the Romantic era. Burke talked about the sublime in terms of infinity, vastness and intensity of feeling, especially terror and awe, and drew a clear distinction between the sublime and the concept of beauty, which he linked to feelings of pleasure, tenderness and harmony and with things of delicacy and elegance:
'It is not the oak, the ash or the elm, or any of the robust trees of the forest, which we consider as beautiful: they are awful and majestic; they inspire a sort of reverence. It is the delicate myrtle, the orange…the flowery species, so remarkable for its weakness and momentary duration that gives us the liveliest idea of beauty and elegance.'
These were ideas that held considerable appeal for writers and artists of the Romantic vanguard, who shared Burke's fascination with profound emotion and saw rich material in the affinity of the sublime with the power of nature. Storms, turbulent oceans and mountains bathed in light or sheathed in darkness are among the most recognisable motifs that came to be associated with the Romantic concept of the sublime.
Two centuries later and in a vastly different environment, this is the kind of sublimity that George Haynes evokes in Bushfire, inspired by a memorable night flight over a landscape engulfed in flame in Western Australia's far northern Kimberley region. Haynes's work can be seen in the context of a continuing tradition of Australian landscape painting with antecedents in the nineteenth-century European genre of the natural sublime. Its origins in this country can be traced to the colonial imagery of émigré European artists like John Glover, Eugène von Guérard and Conrad Martens, for whom the challenge of painting lay 'not in that of imitating individual objects, but the art of imitating an effect which nature has produced with means far beyond anything we have at our command'.
To varying degrees, each drew on conventions of the European romantic sublime in depicting the Australian landscape. There is a particular emphasis on atmospheric handling of light to suggest nature's moods and might - one that likewise figures in the collection's twentieth-century landscapes. Two works by John Peter Russell - L'Aiguille, Soleil d'hiver, Belle Ile, painted in 1904, and a later image, South Head Sydney of 1934 - highlight Russell's enduring interest in the study of natural forces. A definitive work in this regard is Australian façade by Lloyd Rees. Much of the dramatic authority in this piece lies in Rees's handling of the fall of light on the complex structure of the rocky escarpment. Of particular finesse is the distinctive use of scumbling, in which Rees has dragged near-white paint across passages of the highly textured surface to describe sunlight catching on the bristling forms of trees and folds in the rockface.
The visual language of the romantic sublime is similarly discernable in more contemporary art, as in the photography of Bill Henson. This exhibition includes three images from Henson's Paris Opera project: a sunset, a cloudscape and an extreme close-up of the face of a young girl absorbed in an experience outside the frame of vision. Presumably she is at the opera, yet the face, seemingly disembodied within a void of blackness, suggests an 'otherworldliness' which may or may not emanate from her experience of the opera. The juxtaposition of imagery is deliberately enigmatic; suggestive of a subliminal connection between art, nature and human experience. In Henson's words, the images contain 'actual mystery. Things that leave one questioning, … that animate the speculative capacity.'
'If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite'
Time and space are central to the concept of infinity, which for Burke was 'a powerful source of the sublime'. It is easily possible to see light and its corollary, colour, as phenomena equally evocative of the infinite. Works in the exhibition by Howard Taylor, Ralph Balson and Robert Hunter are among those that most directly explore the interrelationship between space, light and colour, and their influence on how the eye perceives form and dimension.
For Taylor, painting offered the means to explore the processes of visual perception that allow the eye to register an infinite range of subtlety and depth in light, colour and volume as they exist in the observable natural world. His interest centred upon the simple though compelling idea that the object seen in space was a fundamental aspect of vision, and if it could be understood visually and painted convincingly on the flat surface of the canvas, one was getting to grips with the painter's vision.
Hill with cloud bank and Bush fire sun, both by Taylor, are definitive works in this respect, each drawing on forms and atmospheric conditions in the landscape to address the behaviour of light and space on solid objects. There is considerable material density in Taylor's abstracted treatment of the subjects, yet the eye is readily able to assimilate the high level of surface detail and the simplification of forms to perceive a weightless continuum of space and light.
Ralph Balson was similarly concerned with the problem of representing essentially ephemeral phenomena. He wrote about the interconnection of light, colour and space in relation to the idea of continuity within the universe:
'I have long held the belief that the arts of man are his expression in terms of a particular medium of his concept of the universe. The concept of relativity, the vision of it I get as a painter, fascinates me: the universe without a beginning, without end, a continuous creating, destroying and expanding movement, its one constant being the speed of light…The very narrow band, the spectrum, is all we can ever hope to have to try and reach a small amount of rhythm and relativity of the whole universe with the substance of paint.'
The organisation of composition according to mathematical principles also finds a place in the work of more representational artists. A key compositional device for Godfrey Miller was the Golden Section, a mathematical formula for the division of space used in art and architecture to determine the arrangement of objects according to principles of harmonious proportion. The formula is based on one of the most resonant symbols of the infinite - the spiral - a form in itself described by an unending mathematical series.
Miller uses the rhythm of the spiral as the basis for the composition of Trees in moonlight II, leading the eye around the elliptical perimeter of the work and inwards through a passage of extended space to the centre of the composition. He gives precedence to the painterly representation of space and light over the definition of solid forms, using a pictorial tesselation reminiscent of glass mosaic to give each of the elements of the work a uniform shimmer and translucency. The effect is as of the solid mass of the forest dissolving into moonlight.
In classical thought the Golden Section - which is also found throughout the natural world - was linked with the concept of 'divine proportion' and understood to be the signature of the divine on all things in the universe. This is an idea in accord with Miller's own concept of a mystic order to the cosmos: Dante wrote 'All things are arranged in a certain order and this consitutes the form by which the Universe resembles God.' That is a splendid approach to painting a still life.
The notion of a universe of objects held together in perfect equilibrium is evident in the interwoven forms of Miller's Trees in moonlight II and, likewise, in the precise balance of implements that appear to hover in space above the abstracted plane of a tablecloth in Justin O'Brien's Still life.
In the work of John Brack, however, there is no suggestion of universal harmony - rather, a sense of balance pushed to the brink of instability. In Nude with Persian carpet, the contorted space between the wall, the bed and the floor creates the illusion that everything in the room is about to slide out of the canvas and onto the floor in front of the viewer. The effect is even more extreme in a later painting, One, two, three. Brack's vision of the world is one of precarious balance between equilibrium and chaos.
THE IMPACT OF SCALE
There is a right physical size for every idea.
The concept of dimension is central to accounts of the sublime. In Burke's terms, it is when both the field of vision and the mind encounter objects or ideas of great size that our thoughts can turn in this direction.
The use of expansive dimension to immerse the viewer in a mind, body and sensory encounter comes into play in a number of inclusions in the exhibition. Robert MacPherson speculates on the relationship between size and the power of suggestion in Mayfair: Agda-oodwa ogda, one for D, a work stretching over two metres in height across four large Masonite panels rendered in commercial house paints. In such a large format, the image of a fast-food icon as it might be painted on a roadhouse billboard assumes a level of heroism that recalls the traditions of classical history painting: communicating big ideas through big works. There is an intentional wit to MacPherson's exaggeration of heroic scale with commonplace subject matter that invites a consideration of the sublime in a more unconventional context: the poetic resonance of everyday experience:
'As long as I can remember I've been aware of and found vernacular road signage, country fresh produce signs, roadside gas, food etc… I find a beautiful poetry in this, the constant repainting of signs…producing a beautiful scumbling of line and paint surface, a wonderful directness of means and unselfconsciousness in the use of paint often lost in so called high art'
By contrast Hector Jandany communicates the idea of vastness through a radical inversion of scale, depicting massive rock formations in the Warmun region of far north Western Australia through the most economical and direct of means - simple white contour lines drawn over a background of dark pigments on a canvas of very small dimension.
THE INTERNAL SUBLIME: MIND, SPIRIT, SOUL
The experience of awe, that for Burke was at the very heart of the sublime is the point of departure for Immanuel Kant, who, in writing The Critique of Judgement some thirty years after Burke, took the analysis of the sublime beyond the level of the emotive and into the realm of revelation. For Kant, nature is the conduit through which we can experience the sublime:
'For the sublime, in the strict sense of the word, cannot be contained by any sensuous form, but rather concerns ideas of reason. Thus the broad ocean, agitated by storms cannot be called sublime… It is rather the cast of mind in appreciating it that we have to estimate as sublime.'
He held that awe-inspiring encounters with nature invoke the sublime when they stimulate the mind to a heightened awareness of the immeasurable scale and complexity of the universe. Such encounters allow us to transcend everyday experience of the world, and invite contemplation of the infinite - in the universe and, more importantly, in the mind's own limitless capacity for thought and imagination. In Kant's terms, the very fact that we can grasp at the existence of realms beyond the readily perceptible is a revelation of the mind's capacity to discover meaning through its encounters with the world.
This quintessential Enlightenment idea emerged in the mid eighteenth-century alongside the deist concept of 'natural religion', which sought to reconcile science and the spiritual within a single all-encompassing divine plan. Deism's creator is one that stands transcendent to the universe, watching from afar, but whose maker's stamp is found in all that surrounds us. It reflects a concept of nature as interfused with the spiritual that has a universal resonance discernible in teachings across many different religions and philosophies.
Key works in this context are narrative biblical paintings by Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and John Perceval produced in the 1940s and 1950s and a broad spectrum of Indigenous works of the last decade. Nolan's Flight into Egypt is distinctive for the atmosphere of mysticism evoked by the surrealistic treatment of the landscape dominated by the presence of a beautiful and incongruously bountiful tree that rises magically from the red earth. A similar sense of the mystic pervades Arthur Boyd's untamed wilderness in Jacob's dream. Wankajunka artist, Billy Thomas takes an essentially schematic approach to the representation of spiritual subject matter. Young women's corroboree depicts a women's ceremony in the Great Sandy Desert region, with radiating circles of textured white ochres denoting massed groups of women preparing for ceremony. Thomas draws on a repertoire of pattern and colour that appears highly abstract and has a strong contemporary sensibility, yet carries levels of both personal and traditional symbolism.
The association of the sublime with spiritual and transcendent experience has been of interest to a number of influential twentieth-century artists working with abstraction. Perhaps foremost among these was the American Barnett Newman, who sought to establish a 'sublime art' that could directly connect with states of emotion and consciousness through the physical act of painting. In 'The sublime is now', written in 1948, Newman described his investigations into the sublime as
reasserting man's natural desire for the exalted, for a concern with our relationship to the Absolute emotions. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man or life, we are making them out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.
In this exhibition, works by Tony Tuckson, Peter Booth and Mike Parr deal with the subconscious through abstraction, while images by Russell Drysdale, Joy Hester and Gordon Bennett exemplify a more representational approach to the depiction of psychic states.
In the era of Romanticism in which Burke and Kant lived, the mind's capacity for thought and creativity was celebrated as the single attribute that distinguished humanity from the rest of nature and brought the individual into connection with the divine. For both writers, the mind's limitless capacity to create was in fact the decisive embodiment of the sublime. Today, the philosophical discussions of Burke and Kant continue to generate new debate on the subject - and artists remain fascinated with the potential of art to express the more elusive experiences of the psyche that have come to be associated with the concept of the sublime. At the most essential level it is in this concern with the mind's capacity to give form to profound experience that art shares common ground with the sublime.
Helen Carroll is Curator of the Wesfarmers Collection