Be it Art

A reflection about art and all its meanings


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Art as Beauty, Art as Sublime

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, by PicassoProfessor Shad Wenzlaff, at Edgewood College, recently asked his Art History class to site works of art that they considered beautiful and others they could consider Sublime.

Prof. Wenzlaff offered quotes by Gavin Hamilton as well as Edmund Burke to help formulate the perceived difference. I found this question intriguing and offer up my opinion of work that fall into these separate categories.

To put a framework around the following quotes, here is a brief note about art in the mid1700’s. At this time, Europe entered an era of Enlightenment. People began to base their thinking upon reason and order. New discoveries in science were being made and shifts in philosophy were giving ‘mankind’ great confidence through intellect. (‘Man’ being gender neutral!) This new thinking gave way to a revival in classical art from ancient Rome and Greece.  Within this new context, art theorists began to discuss beauty in art.

Cavin Hamilton provoked discussion among other Enlightenment era art theorists by stating:

“According to strict classical theory, the visual arts were concerned with the production of beauty, and therefore could not engage in any kind of theme that produced distortions of extreme emotion, as this would interfere with the display of pure beauty.”

Edmund Burke responded to Hamilton’s theories, but went on to revive the role of  The Sublime in art:

“Beauty was generated from our sense of love and attraction, the sublime from our sense of aversion and fear.”

If we adhere to these theorists’ definition of art that is strictly beautiful we would be inclined to find work based on aesthetic merit, with little overriding emotional display – especially of anything negative or disturbing. Here are examples I believe to be simply – beautiful

  • Doryphoros, by Polykeitos, c. 450-440 BCE Museo Archaeologico Nazionale, Naples
  • David, by Michelangelo, 1501-1504, Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence
  • Birth of Venus, Botticelli, 1484-1486, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
  • Symphony in White NO.II: The Little White Girl, by Whistler, 1864, Tate, London
  • Blue Dancers, Degas, 1899, Pushkin Museum, Moscow

On the other hand, work that could be considered Sublime, can be beautiful, but carries with it an emotional charge, often dark, thought provoking and sometimes uncomfortable.

  • Allegory with Venus and Cupid, Bronzino, 1540, National Gallery, London
  • Garden of Earthly Delights, Bosch, 1505-1515, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
  • Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, Picasso, 1907, The Museum of Modern Art, New York
  • Olympia, Manet, 1863, Musee d’ Orsay, Paris
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