PRINT May 1976

The Ideal and the Literal Sublime

A STRIKING ESTHETIC CONFRONTATION between painting and photography occurs in the current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art of American masterpieces from its collection. The room devoted to the period during which the Hudson River School flourished contains paintings by Cole, Church, Kensett and Bierstadt and a photograph by Carlton Watkins. Cole’s Ox-bow, Church’s Heart of the Andes and Kensett’s Lake George are shown side by side on one wall; Bierstadt’s huge Rocky Mountains is juxtaposed with Watkins’s photograph of Mt. Starr King, Yosemite, on the wall opposite. Within a thick, bevelled brown mat, glassed over and set into a plain brown but deeply scooped wood frame, the Watkins is presented as if it were a small easel painting. The photograph and the painting are nearly exactly contemporary and the frame enforces the photograph’s contemporaneous period aspect. Such a group and grouping tell us something not only of the relationship between “art” and photography, but about history as well.

At first the Watkins is—or so it appears—so much more effective than the Bierstadt that it would seem that photography had indeed surpassed painting at that point. For the Bierstadt is not as grand as it obviously attempted to be while the Watkins is, almost subversively, without having really tried.

Both Watkins and Bierstadt were stirred by the sheer magnificence of the Western landscape, but where Watkins is content to let the facts speak for themselves, Bierstadt exaggerates them. Bierstadt painted not so much the sublimity of the scene as a belated recollection of it. The Rocky Mountains seems and is inflated precisely because the conception of the whole falsifies the very real perceptions evident in the parts. The best part of the picture is the least sublime—the tribe of Indians camped on the plain at the base of snowcapped peaks that rise so unbelievably high above them. Snow-capped mountains are almost unbelievable in reality, a cliché of sublime picturesqueness (if I may put it that way), and Bierstadt’s exaggerations occur because he conveys no requisite ideality that would justify so rhetorical a presentation. Conversely, photographic snow scenes invariably become overindulgently pictorial because there is more tone than detail, thwarting the camera’s ability, one might even say its function, to record complex information. The tonal subtlety possible with a photograph virtually requires complexity to fulfill itself, though paradoxically a fidelity to tone, far from guaranteeing unity, will frequently call attention to itself at the expense of the image as a whole. But in Watkins’s impressive print the dome of rock is bald and an ideal foil for the heavy foliage beneath. The result is a compelling arrangement of contrasting masses and textures which evoke the scale that, though natural, now functions without theatrical effect as a metaphor of the majesty the photographer envisioned. And where size is just another aspect of the exaggeration of the Bierstadt, the large size of Watkins’s print, typical of those of the great photographers of the West, seems no more than the proper function of the photographer’s sense of subject.

But if the Watkins “criticizes” the Bierstadt (and I do not mean to suggest, incidentally, that all Bierstadts are similarly unconvincing), it does not overtake either the Cole, the Church, or the Kensett—but especially the Cole. When Cole painted the Ox-bow (1826) his Romantic imagination was still safely shrouded in the Arcadian conventions of Claude and had not had to confront the impact of photographic verism upon the idealizing propensity of the times. For him sublimity was a refuge from reality; for Watkins it existed in reality, and he luxuriated in it. Otherwise, the sheer physical effort required to make such a photograph at such a place at that time wouldn’t have been worth it. Cole clung to the fading grandeur of the past more than he identified with a new majesty of nature in the present. (“We feel,” he said, “the want of such associations as cling to scenes in the old world.”) Cole’s mixture of historical and local inspiration makes his painting a perfect example of the transitional status of American art at that time, anxiously cloaking a natural and topical majesty in borrowed artifice.

For Church, a quarter of a century later, the situation had become more problematical. A student of Cole’s, he nonetheless seems to have sensed that idealizing sublimity was no longer appropriate to changing habits of perception and a less ideal, more literal sense of place (conceivably wrought in part by photography). This was true not only in this country but in Europe as well. Shortly after 1859, when Church completed The Heart of the Andes, Manet had begun to translate light in a manner appropriate to painting’s own literalness—that of the medium itself. Painterliness seems to have made artists more aware of light, which in turn seems to have increased the awareness of paint. Photography is a painterly medium which, by a literal impression of light, faithfully reproduces rather than sacrifices detail. In this, photography is unique.

In America, however, the Romantic mode, linear though it was in visual terms, was just coming into its own native maturity. It therefore retained the lust for grandeur and the exotic, the rise of genre painting notwithstanding. It was, then, no accident that Church found his subject for his most important, most singularly American painting, not in his own country, but in another—a foreign land in the same hemisphere. In the South American Andes Church indulged a Romantic sensibility at a distance which shielded him from the full thrust of verism—distance replacing the Ideal as a defense against the present. Inevitably, there is a profound difference between Cole’s rendering of it and Church’s. In Cole there is grandeur of concept; Church’s painting verges on grandeur of effect. The size of the canvas is much larger, as if to compensate for the shrinking of the Idea(l)—or the literalizing of it that is evident in the effort to render— if only by suggestion—the “sublime” profusion of tropical foliage. Church’s verism in this respect contrasts sharply with Cole’s painterly stylization of foliage, especially in the middle distance. For Cole and his generation, let alone his antecedents, verism and sublimity were incompatible. Cole was beginning to feel the pressure of factualism, which is to say his rendering had begun to incline toward a mannered fussiness. In the Ox-bow the sublime is a generality greater than the facts. But the hurried notations of detail anticipate the collapse of Cole’s later works, whose meaningless breadth leaves the sublime “homeless”—without place, period or even a real subject. Something like this was to reemerge in Abstract Expressionism, which similarly degenerated into pointless rhetorical exercises in paint. (Compare Pollock at his peak with most abstract art by the early ’60s.) In both theme and treatment Church anticipates Bierstadt, for whom the West was a kind of remote and “foreign” wilderness. But Church’s verism produced a more principled, if incipiently theatrical sublime.

The sublime, or the effect of the sublime, is produced not only by dramatic effects of scale but by dramatic movement, especially movement that seems to have burst from some unseen restraint at sharp, even extreme angles, frequently as counterposed thrusts. The frequent presence of lightning in sublime landscape epitomizes these principles. But it is a particular feature of Romantic neo-Classic figure compositions as well. In late 18th-century English narrative art, “Classical” and “Romantic” impulses simply collide. The sublime landscape offers a surrogate for narrative action in tempestuous skies and windblown trees, precipitously inclining in the foreground against a backdrop of cavernously spaced hills and mountains, like the one in the foreground of Cole’s Ox-bow. But in the Cole this dramatic motif is then embellished with contradictory picturesque detail. It is a premonitory contradiction, for, as we see, verism gradually begins to overtake, virtually overgrow, the old and Ideal sublime, subduing not only the Ideal but movement as well. In the Church movement seems caught in a web of detail like fish in a net. The problem in the Bierstadt is inevitably the failure of sheer mass to do the work designed for movement.

Thus the stylistic shrewdness of Kensett’s Lake George. Its almost eerie stillness—the water is a sheet of glass—reflects the realization that taste could no longer support the traditional sublime, but it also marks a hesitation to embrace literalism. The hills in the background are shrouded in a dissolving mist, the last diaphanous veil of a fading heroic sublimity.

Photographers did not hesitate. But then they had no choice. The representation of movement was beyond the means of photography at the time. However, movement seems also to have lost its cultural viability as a metaphor of grandeur as well. This probably enhanced the plausibility of photography as an artistic medium. The recognition by photographers of landscape, however related to prior pictorial traditions, became virtually a matter of necessity as the hunger for the heroic was projected upon the land—at least in the United States. English landscape photography is dominated by picturesque conceptions, except, significantly, those of ancient monuments and the Near East by Francis Frith (and in France there was Maxime du Camp)—the sublime again recovered in a foreign land.

Necessity, it has been observed, is the mother of invention, but philosophy clears away the conceptual debris of the past so that necessity can function in the first place. Cultural “ideals,” “values,” “perceptions” are pretty complex matters which are oversimplified in the utterance, and they are fairly intangible, besides. We cannot actually define what we principally experience visually. Nevertheless, for photography to have become a medium capable of visualizing cultural sensibility, some ideological preparation was necessary. The historical fact is that American landscape photography derives from the Romantic ethos in general and, at home, from a process of philosophical growth in which, ironically, the primitive appeal of nature was assimilated in the effort to outgrow provincialism. Specifically, the cult of nature in the United States is partly the result of the importation of the philosophy of the sublime and the picturesque in the early 1800s. Long before the West inspired the photographer, Niagara, the Hudson, the Adirondacks, the Catskills and the White Mountains had already begun to become objects of philosophical contemplation—and emblems of cultivation as well. As the Eastern wilderness became “tamed,” first by philosophy and then by progress, the West became a new wilderness to idealize and the source of a new, or renewed, Romanticism. In the visual arts, a Bierstadt and later a Thomas Moran, steeped in an outmoded rhetoric of representation, simply fell behind in the effort to achieve new metaphors of sublimity. Bierstadt’s Rocky Mountains is dated 1866, the Watkins view in Yosemite as “before 1866.” The Watkins clearly has inherited the new visual imperatives of the era.

Among other things, the present “rediscovery” of photographers such as Watkins and other photographers of the West like O’Sullivan, Muybridge, Hillers,Jackson and Haynes represents as much a nostalgia for sublimity as for nature. Though photography repressed movement, it did not repress the implied narrative of sublimity. It created, in effect, a new sublime, a sublime without terror. In today’s context, however, this contrasts with the modern photographic tradition, which, mastering the representation of movement, lost much of the heroic sublimity of photography’s early and deceptive immobility. The modern photographer does not seem concerned so much with either heroics or at least with landscape. Paul Strand’s New York City and even his rustic New England are more convincingly sublime (though in truth they are not conceptually inclined that way) than Ansel Adams’s “parks” or Edward Weston’s wilderness “art nouveau.” Of course, the wilderness as such now barely exists, and where it does, it does so as “preserve,” the threats to which have excited a nostalgia for them that is collaterally evident in the plastic arts. What are Earthworks (what were Earthworks?) if not an extremely cultivated effort to revive a picturesque sublimity in the plastic arts? One recalls Bob Smithson touring the “monuments of Passaic”—with an Instamatic, no less.

This is not to say that photography and its technological cognates of the present era have inherited the tradition and mandate of visual art, but only to attest to the way a problem in art is at times also a problem of technique, of medium. Photography did not displace painting; it merely solved certain problems of “credibility” which confronted painting in the mid-19th century. (After all, no one ever suggested that the invention of photography meant that sculpture was dead.) Nevertheless, photography did help pave the way to what we recognize as the literalism of present-day art by encouraging perception, as it were, to so supersede the intellect that object and information fused. As we have seen, or as hindsight compels us to see, painting undertook an analogous development, seeking a phenomenal immediacy paralleling that of the photograph. Modernism “reduced” art, not from representation to abstraction, but from illusion to phenomenal “information.” A cultural process which began, in the photograph, by separating sublimity from theatricality thus climaxes in an orgy of “information” that precludes any scheme of social and cultural values. If I am right, photographers and artists should be asking themselves exactly what ideals, if any, remain for their art to serve.

Sidney Tillim, the well-known artist and critic, teaches at Bennington College.