Sunday, 19 February 2017

Utopias 4 - The Sublime, the Beautiful, the Picturesque and the Uncanny.

Utopias 4

Although astronomy consigned 'the music of the spheres' to history, the link between music and science is not entirely lost. Beatrice Tinsley (who worked on the 'life-time' changes of galaxies) was a talented musician and Bernard Lovell (the first Director of the Jodrell Bank radio telescope) played the organ at his local church. It seems that the musical ability of some scientists is part of their desire to understand the rules of nature.

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) wanted to believe in the music of the spheres but his laws of planetary motion eventually created our modern idea of 'outer space'. (1) 

Frontispiece to
Johannes Kepler's
Mysterium cosmographicum
The removal of crystal spheres from cosmology replaced them with locations in emptiness. As music is composed of notes, and the intervals between them, natural philosophers realised that emptiness is part of nature. The discovery that the greater the distance a planet orbits the sun the slower it moves suggested that that the motion of stars is not seen because they are so very far away. No longer believed to be attached to a common sphere (like the back-wall of a stage with moving scenery in front) it was possible to imagine the vast distance to the stars, the gulf of space between them and the darkness of the interstellar void.

Isaac Newton’s development of Kepler's work and the exploration of successively more unfamiliar and fearfully vast regions contributed to a gradual shift in the appreciation of nature. From the time of Classical Greece to the Renaissance the known world could be divided into civilised cultivated space and the wild forests and mountains. By the 18th century the scale of the wild areas of the globe, relative to the more familiar cities and farms, was apparent. Captain James Cook circumnavigated Antarctica in 1773 and, without attempting to put ashore, supposed the existence of a frozen continent from rocks seen embedded in floating ice.

This challenge to the collective imagination of the scale of wild nature occurred as the essayist John Hall introduced the idea of the sublime to Britain through his translations of the Roman writer Longinus. The sublime became a theme within literature and art that was made fashionable by Edmund Burke from 1757. His book a Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful became the must-have book of the eighteenth century and coincided with the emergence of landscape art from the domination of history painting.

The Enquiry was possibly the greatest literary influence on visual art since the philosophy of Classical Greece. Burke was the first to connect the sublime with the concept of power and distinguished it from beauty in way that expanded the possibilities for landscape artists. In the Netherlands the picturesque style had become a marketing formula for the original landscape painters whose guilds helped to commercialise their paintings, etchings and engravings.  Although their picturesque scenes became less representative as lake drainage, coastal reclamation and land improvement created the type of artificial and intensively farmed landscape familiar today, the style grew in popularity. Burke's Enquiry was not written specifically as art criticism, his comments were about the effect of nature on the senses and  emotions, but the influence that he had on subsequent landscape art can be gauged from:    '
Part 3 - section XXVII. The Sublime and Beautiful compared:

" For sublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones comparatively small; beauty should be smooth, and polished; the great, rugged and negligent; beauty should shun the right line, yet deviate from it insensibly; the great in many cases loves the right line, and when it deviates, it often makes a strong deviation; beauty should not be obscure; the great ought to be dark and gloomy; beauty should be light and delicate; the great ought to be solid, and even massive." (2)

Burke's Enquiry caused artists to notice the wild parts of nature. The canonical works of sublime art depicted scenes of darkness, vast scale and rugged mountains, but William Gilpin, in his Three Essays on Picturesque Beauty (1792) and Uvedale Price, in his Essays on the Picturesque (1794) wrote that picturesque art was a
Claude Lorrain
Landscape near Rome with a
View of the Ponte Molle
third category, along with the sublime and the beautiful. Although seemingly arcane today, these distinctions provided a forum for public discourse fueling a nascent tourist industry that had nature as a destination instead of religious shrines. A chain of influence involved picturesque landscape pictures viewed and collected by young gentlemen on their 'grand tours' of the cultural destinations of 18th century
. These landscape pictures promoted the grand tour fashion and the experience of the journey was validated by the purchase of picturesque art, which had an effect on the appearance of country estates.

Landscape pictures brought back from the continent inspired 18th century landowners in England to remake their estates in a naturalistic style. William Kent (1685–1748) used his architectural and theatre design skills to create a landscape garden style opposed to geometric layouts. Lancelot "Capability" Brown (1715 or 1716–1783) developed the style, designing over 170 parks for the landed gentry who had sufficient wealth to undertake
  Richard Payne Knight -
The Landscape (1794)
gardening on the scale of civil
 engineering. The parks deliberately included visual elements from paintings, such as those Claude Lorrain, becoming a physical manifestation of the picturesque aesthetic.Landscape art succeeded by satisfying the desire for beauty as well as suggesting that nature is meaningful and our place in it is purposeful. Burke's account of the sublime was fully realised through painting in in the 19th century in North American. For new American citizens the style of the sublime suited the profound enormity of nature in the U.S.A. but without associations with the privilege of aristocracy. The new wealth of businessmen paid for artists such as Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) to portray the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains with paintings such as Rocky Mountains 'Lander's Peak' (Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums)
 Fogg Art Museum,
Harvard University
Art Museums.

Landscape art (viewed in new public galleries and lithographic copies) became part of the currency of debate about nature and the main genre of 19th century Western art, but the publication of Robert Hooke's Micrographia in 1665 and the emergence of geology from canal building and mining had already signified the opening of a divide between science and art. Bierstadt's pictures became widely known and contributed to the belief in America as manifest destiny. In the 20th century modernism enlisted science to help formulate an international destiny, creating a new relationship to nature not easily depicted in landscape art or gardens. (3) Seeing with radar, sound, electrons and x-rays as well as discovering both emptiness and immense power in the atom, the unmasked workings of nature placed it beyond familiarity. Art had depicted nature as beautiful, sublime and picturesque, now science made it uncanny.
LEFT: Typhoon, Radar Photograph. U.S. Navy  CENTRE: Lily. Radiograph: Eastman Kodak Company. RIGHTCloud Chamber Photograph. Professor. G.E. Valley. M.I.T.
                The New Landscape in Science and Art. Chicago 1956.

(1) JAMES, J. Kepler Pythagorises. In: The Music of the Spheres. London: Little,        Brown and Company (UK) Limited, 1993.

(2) Revised edition. ISBN 0-631-15278-4: Basil Blackwell Ltd , 1987. 
     Page 124.

(3) KEPES, G. The New Landscape in Science and Art. Chicago: Paul Theobold 
      and Co. , 1956.