In his renowned treatise ‘A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful’, Edmund Burke states the sublime is “productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (p.1.). Drawing from Pseudo-Longinus classical text ‘Peri Hypsous’ (‘On the Sublime’), Burke effectively differentiated the sublime from the beautiful. His writings were extremely influential for Romantic painters such as John Martin and Casper David Freidrich.
However in this essay I want to argue that Burkean sublime can still be found in modern and contemporary art works. For this essay I will primarily focus on Anselm Kiefer’s ‘Die Ungebornen’ (The Unborn) and Katie Paterson’s ‘All the Dead Stars’ as a means of outlining Burkes ideas but also to demonstrate the staying power of the Sublime’s influence on contemporary art.Burke begins his treatise with the key principle that “ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure” (p.
1.). and under certain circumstances – particularly distance from said pain – can initiate the feelings of pleasure thus producing the sublime. Burke elaborates on this theory that “we have a degree of delight, and that no small one, in the real misfortunes and pains of others”(p.
2.), arguing that schadenfreude wither “authentic” or “fictitious” is of equal validity in our attraction to objects containing or emitting the pain of others. This primary idea that the sublime is terror, awe and I would argue that Kiefer’s ‘Die Ungebornen’ encapsulates many Burkean tropes in prompting a sublime response. The painting is symptomatic of many familiar tropes found across Kiefer’s work, rich with references to: the Holocaust, cosmology and myth that need to be broken down for us to understand what the artist is trying to say. Let us begin with the Holocaust which is possibly the most troubling aspect of the work to attribute as ‘sublime’ when living in an age where the word can be used to describe an excellent football goal – i.e. his goal in the 89th minute was truly sublime.
However, Burke saw terror as central to inspiring the sublime, stating “terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently, the ruling principle of the sublime”(p.40). Burke’s key conviction was that the sublime inspired thoughts of terror, danger or awe in the mind that the body could perceive at relative safety arguing that “when danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible” (1.7 p.21.). Therefore by Burke’s standards would could term Kiefer’s depiction of the Holocaust as sublime but not the event in itself.
However, Kiefer does not explicitly show the Holocaust, merely alludes to it primarily through white numbered strips scattered across the painting. These strips can be viewed as a representation of the systematic branding of people in concentration camps but also, within the context of the painting, as NASA’s attempt to number and order the stars, an idea I will return to. By not simply illustrating the Holocaust Kiefer’s work portrays another Burkean Trope in establishing the sublime, that of ‘Obscurity’. It is obscurity that is needed “to make any thing very terrible”(2.3 p.40-41) and as we have already established it is terror that is most evocative of the sublime. As Burke states “when we know the full extent of any danger … a great deal of the apprehension vanishes”(2.3 p.
41.). Kiefer allows the horrors of the holocaust to play out more in our minds than on the canvas echoing Burkes sentiments that “it is one thing to make an idea clear, and another to make it affecting to the imagination”(2.
4 p.42.), ensuring Kiefer’s is a work of poetic contemplation rather than the theatrics of more traditional History Painting. This symbolic representation is essential to the paintings sublimity as it deals with what we can deem the absolute of human cruelty, cruelty on a scale which in itself is sublime, sublime as in it is beyond our comprehension. In his 1982 essay ‘Presenting the Unrepresentable: The Sublime’, Jean-Francois Lyotard proposed “one cannot represent the absolute, but can demonstrate the absolute exists”(p.34 sublime book). The demonstration of absolute cruelty is depicted in Kiefer’s painting in the form of non depiction which asks could the sublime scale, or to use Burke’s language ‘Vastness’, of the Holocaust’s horrors ever be comprehended?It could be said that ‘Die Ungebornen’ has the idea of vastness at its core.
As mentioned earlier the numbered white strips also correspond to NASA’s numbering of the stars, proposing vastness on the grandest scale. Kiefer positions these numbered strips on a lead background dotted with light and dark spots imitating the billions of galaxies in the universe. Burke discusses ways we can consider vastness where he argues height rather than length or depth to be the most effective facet of vastness in evoking the sublime. However, so sublime is the vastness of the universe that even these distinctions fall away as up and down are notions that cease to exist in the cosmos. We must turn to Burke’s writing on ‘Magnificence’ when addressing the universe where he states: “the stars lie in such apparent confusion, as makes it impossible on ordinary occasions to reckon them.
This gives them the advantage of a sort of infinity”(2.13 p.62.). In Kiefer’s painting we see a perhaps futile attempt to comprehend the heavens with handwritten white strips, written with a conscious naivety. Perhaps by his insistence on the handmade rather than technology to engage with the universe is an admittance of humankind’s incapability to truly grasp the sublime infinity of the cosmos, filling “the mind with that sort of delightful horror”(2.
8).Kiefer emphasises this cosmic infinity by juxtaposing a plaster coated tree shrub at the heart of the image perhaps a reference to the microcosmic and macrocosmic theory of 16th century physician Robert Fludd. Fludd believed that everything was connected and that which happened in the cosmos (macrocosm) had a direct relationship with with life on Earth (microcosm) stating: “every Plant has his Related Star in the Sky”(Flood in Kiefer book p.76.) This interrelatedness can also be found in Burke’s analysis of the sublime when discussing the how inconceivably small objects are also symptoms of the sublime and their relation to the inconceivably large.
“For division must be infinite as well as addition; because the idea of a perfect unity can be no more arrived at” (2.7 p.56).
To further emphasise the scale of nature Kiefer attaches metallic garments. We may think of these garments in the same way we consider the minute figures in the quintessentially sublime paintings of Romanticism. Paintings, such as John Martin’s ‘The Destruction of Pompei and Herculaneum’ (1822), where tiny figures are juxtaposed against the immense scale and power of nature. Kiefer’s disembodied figures set against the vastest expanse of nature.Disembodied garments have become a recurrent motif of Kiefer’s work as a reference to Jewish myth of Lilith. According to the Kabbalah, Lilith was the first wife of Adam who refused to accept his dominance and fled the Garden of Eden to the Red Sea. In Jewish mythology she is said to make woman infertile or abort, “they left her and she is Lilith who weakens the children of men” (alphabet of Ben Sira 23a-b).
Although she is not explicitly referenced in ‘Die Ungebornen’ when can infer the myth’s presence by looking at Kiefer’s other works, for instance ‘Lilith at the Red Sea’. Katharina Schmidt states that Kiefer’s cosmic work is a place where “the most recent discoveries of physics appear alongside ancient mythology and astronomical traditions” (heavens book p.75) but how do they cohere? In the top right corner Kiefer writes the title of the painting ‘Die Ungebornen’ (The Unborn), forcing us to look at the title as an intrinsic part of the work.
We are reminded of the Platonic idea of the immaterial soul: “at last settles on the solid ground-there, finding a home she receives an earthly frame which appears to be self-moved, but is really moved by her power (Kiefer book p.76.). The souls in Kiefer’s painting never find earthly materiality, forever lost in infinity. Therefore we can read the garments as – like in myth – all the souls never conceived and that never will be conceived by potential parents killed in the Holocaust. Therefore we can take the plaster coated tree at the centre of the painting as portrayal of limbo, the state of the unborn. In keeping with ideas of myth as a frozen Tree of Life.
Andreas Huyssen writes: “Kiefer’s work can be read as a sustained reflection on how mythic images function in history, how myth can never escape history, and how history in turn has to rely on mythic images” p.27.Burke believed that the sublime could be achieved through our sympathy for others through history or fiction, writing: “catastrophe touches us in history as much as the destruction of Troy does in fable” (1.14).
He argues that if we simply felt pain from the pain of others then we would avoid that which provokes such feelings. Therefore there must be some element of pleasure however troubling this sentiment may be. Burke concludes this line of thought writing: “the delight we have in such things, hinders us from shunning scenes of misery; and the pain we feel prompts us to relieve ourselves in relieving those who suffer”(1.14). Kiefer emits the sublime pain of myth and history within us on a scale that is cosmic in that it is unfathomable and infinite. He confronts us with incomprehensible ramifications of genocide.Where Kiefer finds the sublime in the unborn, Patterson finds it in death.
Like Kiefer’s ‘Die Ungebornen’ Patterson explores the sublime through the universe and its relation to us. In her piece ‘All the Dead Stars’ 2009, Patterson made a map of around 27,000 dead stars in the observable universe laser-etched on to black anodised aluminium. Although we have already discussed Burke’s treatise in relation to the universe I believe Paterson’s work allows us to discuss a number of Burke’s other key ideas in regard to the sublime. Kiefer somewhat paradoxically used the unborn to talk about death, Patterson conversely uses death to talk about life and birth. By asking us to consider dead stars we begin to focus on