The challenge of the sublime

From Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry to British Romantic art

Hélène Ibata
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The challenge of the sublime argues that the unprecedented visual inventiveness of the Romantic period in Britain could be seen as a response to theories of the sublime, more specifically to Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). While it is widely accepted that the Enquiry contributed to shaping the thematics of terror that became fashionable in British art from the 1770s, this book contends that its influence was of even greater consequence, paradoxically because of Burke’s conviction that the visual arts were incapable of conveying the sublime. His argument that the sublime was beyond the reach of painting, because of the mimetic nature of visual representation, directly or indirectly incited visual artists to explore not just new themes, but also new compositional strategies and even new or undeveloped pictorial and graphic media, such as the panorama, book illustrations and capricci. More significantly, it began to call into question mimetic representational models, causing artists to reflect about the presentation of the unpresentable and the inadequacy of their endeavours, and thus drawing attention to the process of artistic production itself, rather than the finished artwork. By revisiting the links between eighteenth-century aesthetic theory and visual practices, The challenge of the sublime establishes new interdisciplinary connections which address researchers in the fields of art history, cultural studies and aesthetics.

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‘Most studies of the sublime simply bypass a lot of criticism because reviewing the history of the criticism of nineteenth-century aesthetics is burdensome. Ibata, instead, puts her work on Burke in the context of as much previous work as is practically feasible and puts Burke’s treatise in relation to contemporary accounts of the sublime in a way that is rarely, if ever, accomplished…she helps the reader to understand what is unique in Burke and which other writers on the sublime influenced each aspect of his ideas.
European Romantic Review
February 2020

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