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Sublime

Caspar David Friedrich
Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818
Oil on canvas
94.8 x 74.8 cm (37.3 x 29.4 in.)
Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg

The concept of the sublime refers to something that evokes feelings of awe, grandeur, or even helplessness in the presence of power that surpasses human scale or understanding. Caspar David Friedrich, a German Romantic artist, famously depicted landscapes to illustrate the sublime with paintings of diminutive figures overshadowed by the scenery. Friedrich's most famous work, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog created in 1818, portrays a solitary figure standing on a rocky outcrop, gazing out at a vast and misty landscape below. The painting captures the feeling of being overwhelmed by nature's vastness and power, as the viewer is drawn into the misty landscape stretching out before the figure. The use of light and shadow, scale, and composition all contribute to a powerful sense of the sublime.

Artists have also tried to capture the sublime through abstraction, such as Abstract Expressionists Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, who employed large fields of color to overwhelm the viewer. Other abstract artists, such as Clyfford Still, Agnes Martin, and Ad Reinhardt, also sought to convey the sublime through their use of color, form, and texture. Photographers like Hiroshi Sugimoto and Thomas Struth have used large-scale images to capture the overwhelming power of natural landscapes and architecture. Installation artists like James Turrell have created immersive environments to inspire a sense of awe and transcendence.

Photographer Andreas Gursky uses his craft to represent the digital sublime of the information age. He uses more detail than the human eye can detect to convey the overwhelming power of global phenomena like the Internet, global warming, and globalization, which are seen as the paradigms of the contemporary sublime. These phenomena are too vast for any single person to comprehend, making them even more awe-inspiring and powerful. As such, the sublime continues to be a source of inspiration for artists across different mediums and periods, inviting us to contemplate our place in the world amidst the power of nature, technology, and humanity.

Mark Rothko
Untitled, 1967
Acrylic on paper, mounted on Masonite
75.9 x 55.9 cm (29.9 x 22 in.)
© 2023 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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