From Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry to British Romantic art

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.

Abstract only
in The challenge of the sublime

This first chapter emphasises what Burke’s Enquiry owes to the existing discourse on the sublime (to Longinus and Addison in particular), in order to highlight its innovations, more specifically its aesthetically stimulating irrationalism and sensualism. It then focuses on Burke’s unique distinction between visual and verbal representation, his rejection of their common mimetic basis, and his argument that only the non-mimetic, suggestive medium of the verbal arts, language, may impart the sublime. At a time when parallels between the arts prevailed, this was an isolated point of view, which introduced a new paragone situation, and a challenge to visual artists. The end of the chapter examines a number of competing theories of the sublime that were compatible with painting, which makes it possible to enhance the specificity of theEnquiry and the paradox of its appeal to visual artists.

in The challenge of the sublime
The modernity of Burke’s Enquiry

Chapter 2 furthers the argument that Burke’s Enquirypresented a challenge to visual artists by focusing on its contribution to theories of artistic representation. It places Burke’s views on painting’s representational inadequacy within a broader reflection about the artistic medium, mimesis, and the presentation of the unpresentable.

After arguing that the Enquiry outlines a shift from a mimetic conception of art to one which emphasises the artistic medium and, ultimately, the process of production of the artwork, the chapter examines the relevance of the Enquiry to modern aesthetics, by viewing it from the perspective of recent theories of the sublime (Lyotard’s in particular). This approach makes it possible to see in Burke’s conception intimations of what could be called an aesthetics of endeavour, in which the sublime becomes an immanent event of artistic production.

in The challenge of the sublime

The chapter examines intellectual interactions between Burke and Reynolds and contrasts their conceptions of the sublime, in order to determine the extent of Burke’s influence on his friend. Reynolds’s own conception of the sublime is shown to be solidly anchored in the neoclassical tradition and its assimilation of the sublime to the ‘great style’ as well as to Michelangelo’s terribilità. Yet, one may discern ways in which the Enquiry’s irrationalism filtered into Reynolds’s own theory of art, which suggests that he played a part in mediating his friend’s aesthetics for the Royal Academy of Arts. Reynolds’s reconciliation of the neoclassical notion of the ‘great style’ with a new emphasis on imagination and intensity of affect is then understood as one of the first stages in the development of ‘Burkean’ academic productions, which flourished from the mid-1770s onwards.

in The challenge of the sublime
Academic compromises

Chapter 4 assesses the extent of Burke’s immediate influence on academic painters and explores their predilection for dramatic or terrifying subject matter. The correspondence between Burke and his protégé James Barry is examined as an example of the fascination exerted by the Enquiry on the painters of the pre-Romantic generation, and of their keenness to demonstrate the sublimity of painting through neoclassical principles. The rest of the chapter examines other examples of academic painters who addressed the Burkean challenge from the perspective of neoclassical aesthetics, and successfully conflated existing pictorial formulae with the new taste for terror. The work of Henry Fuseli, in particular, is presented as a conscious and informed response to contemporary theories of the sublime, including Burke’s, which sought dynamism, irrationalism and affective power while remaining within the boundaries of academic aesthetics.

in The challenge of the sublime

Chapter 5 focuses on what appears to be one of the most conscious responses to the Burkean challenge: the invention of the panorama by the Irish-Scottish painter Robert Barker in the late 1780s. By literally removing the edges of representation, and immersing its viewers within an uninterrupted circular view, the panorama created a striking illusion of reality which, at least while the medium was still novel, caused unprecedented spectatorial thrills. While the medium could be linked to a tradition of illusion and immersion which predated the Enlightenment reflexion on the sublime, Barker clearly saw its relevance as a means to deny the limitations of painting. The chapter’s analyses of programmes, narratives and descriptions of panoramas by Robert Barker, Henry Aston Barker, Robert Ker Porter and Robert Burford suggest that this conception of the panorama as the most adequate pictorial vehicle of the sublime was to endure for several decades.

in The challenge of the sublime

This analysis looks at attempts to unlimit visual representation at its edges in the ‘minor’ media of book illustrations and landscape sketches. The unprecedented interest of Romantic artists for these marginal forms of visual expression allowed them to explore the liminal space between representation and its absence, in which were articulated the essential tensions of the sublime: the encounter between images of sense and the supersensible that exceeds them, as well as the transition from the beautiful to the sublime. Postmodern theory, especially through Jacques Derrida’s notion of parergonality and Jean-Luc Nancy’s definition of sublime ‘unlimitation’, makes it possible to see these transitional and unstable spaces as significant places of visual exploration, and to explain in what way they can be seen as a response to the challenge of the sublime. The argument first focuses on the enthusiasm of Romantic artists for book illustrations, which were used as a means to structure the work of art from within rather than from its edges, and further examples of ‘unlimitation’ are then provided by changing compositional practices in landscape painting, in connection with plein air sketching and the use of watercolour.

in The challenge of the sublime
Ruin paintings and architectural fantasies

This chapter argues that one of the most efficient strategies of visualisation of the sublime was found in ruin paintings and architectural fantasies, more specifically in the exploration of architectural fragments as a source of formal inventiveness and indeterminacy. The argument suggests that the capriccio genre, especially as it had been developed by Piranesi, provided a combination of irrationality, indeterminacy and boundlessness that made it possible to deny the figurative limitations of the visual arts, and addressed the formal issues that were raised by Burke’s Enquiry. As a result, it could be seen as a major influence on Romantic visual practices, in their quest for the sublime, as may be attested by the works of Joseph Gandy and J.M.W. Turner.

in The challenge of the sublime
Blake’s ‘sublime Labours’

Chapter 8 contends that Blake’s theory and practice of art define, against Burke, an original conception of the sublime as a dynamic process located within creative activity itself rather than an empirical experience founded on passive psychological and physiological responses to external sources of terror. It argues that this shift allows Blake to give a new significance to visual representation, which is no longer cut off from the sublime, but becomes a necessary process towards it. Blake’s prophetic cycle is read as a dramatisation of the incommensurability of Vision and sensible form, which articulates the predicament of the artist, caught between the necessity to present forms, and the awareness that material representation is the first step toward a fall from Vision. The necessity of artistic production prevails because, according to Blake, it is the energetic endeavour to produce forms which demonstrates the imaginative power of the artist, which in fact is sublime in itself. This is made manisfest by the artist’s emphasis on line, and the high degree of medium reflexivity in his illuminated books.

in The challenge of the sublime