Pima, Germany 1945
The camera rolls through the town’s streets, skirting the great piles of rubble. The main thoroughfares have been cleared and it is possible to move the camera through the avenues now. Piles of debris, brick, stone and wood rest were buildings and townhouses have fallen in on themselves. There is dust in the air. There is smoke in the air. There are ruptured gas pipes billowing flames high into the air. A lion emerges from the fog, half cowering hugging the side of the streets, dust encrusted and panting in exhaustion. It passes on. The camera moves on. It turns the corner into a high-sided valley of rubble and there, high above the debris, solid in the grey air is a four-panelled wooden window, frame and glass still intact, hovering in place, unsupported, where it would have sat in the facade of the building that now lies in rubble two storeys below it. There is a dark figure in the window. Is it the figure of a man? An eagle circles, dazed, high above the dust clouds of which the camera’s view cannot penetrate.
In Georg Friedrich Kersting’s 1819 painting, Caspar David Friedrich In His Studio, the Romantic artist leans his weight on the back of his painting chair, palette and maulstick in hand, and contemplates his work, the painting, of which we, the viewer can only see the canvas back, the easel supported against a tall thin-legged table. Kersting had previously painted this same high-ceilinged studio in 1811, this time with Friedrich sitting at the chair, in the act of painting the image of which we can see – a sublime mountain landscape with waterfall. Apart from the position of both artist and painting, the quality of light depicted is different over the two paintings. In 1811 it is a clear bright day and the light from the window illuminates the pastel-green walls, with the furniture’s shadows cast distinctively to the right of the picture. The atmosphere in the later painting is heavier, thicker, later in the day, with the shadows, multi-directional and less defined. The studio has two large arch windows set in the far wall, and in both paintings the right window has been boarded up, from floor to ceiling, blocking out that window entirely, with Friedrich painting solely by the light of the left. (To further control and focus the light, Friedrich has closed the lower three-panelled wooden shutters on the left window.)
At first glance of Caspar David Friedrich’s View from the Painter’s Studio (1805-06), this sepia over graphite print is an observational view out of the right window at the Pirna studio. The large shutters that were apparent in Kersting’s paintings five and fourteen years into the future, have yet to be installed. Apart from the three-panelled lower wooden shutters, the window is identical to the left window. This window consists of four windowpanes, each divided by a thin frame into two panels of glass. The windowpanes open inwards into the studio. Outside is a view of the Elba River. The main crossbeam is reflected in the open windowpane creating a vague impression of other crosses that have appeared in Friedrich’s work, crucifixions seen through mist in remote mountain spaces.
Like the Kersting pair, this picture also has a double, a twin – View from the Artist’s Atelier, Right Window, also from 1805-6, which can be found in the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna. It is another sepia over graphite print. Here the window is not seen straight on, but at an inclined angle, with both lower panes opening inwards to the studio. Either the print has been mis- titled or has been reproduced in reverse, for the print clearly shows the left window of Friedrich’s Pirna studio, identical in every way except for the lower wooden shutters, which have yet to be installed. Of course, the process of creating a graphite print would require the artist’s drawing to be printed in reverse, again adding to the confusion of which window is being represented in his studio. But if this print depicts the left window, then so does View from the Painter’s Studio. The clue to correct orientation of the window depicted in the prints lies in the position of the picture on the wall between the two windows, and below this to the left is the hook with a scissors hanging from it. This hook does not exist in the exact same place in the Kersting painting? – it has been moved higher, and now a large wooden set square hangs from it, but as none of the images I have referred to so far have been photographs, any documentary truth is wholly dependent on the artistic licence of both Kersting and Friedrich.
This mis-titled or reversed print is the one that Mariele Neudecker referenced in her 2002 vitrine piece, Who Has Turned Us Around Like This? The work continues Neudecker’s referencing and transformation of German Romanticism, and framing these concepts within vitrines within gallery and museum spaces. The rectangular vitrine is divided midway by a model of the familiar wall of Friedrich’s Pirna studio complete with a window. By the hanging of a picture on the wall to the right of the window, we can tell Neudecker modelled the model on the studio’s left window. Through the window we can see a model of a solitary leafless tree flooded by opaque chemicals and water emulating a thick Friedrichian mist and light. There is a viewing point at one end of the vitrine where the viewer can look into Friedrich’s studio and out through the window and gaze into a sublime Romantic scene. In a crude way, the glass box structure of the vitrine serves as a kind of Brunelleschian magic box, a technological marvel, a magic trick, replacing reality with the super-natural. To align the viewer with a single monocular view of the artist’s studio and beyond into the sublime space, is to place the viewer as part of the work, in a rough anachronism with Brunelleschi’s linear perspective placing the viewer “as an integral part of the picture by encoding this presence as the inverse, in absentia, source of the converging perspectival lines.” (Viola, 1990). Although here not dealing with perspective as such, a creation of a point of view is part of the work, and so is “its identification with a place in real space.” (Viola, 1990). Neudecker’s work examines concepts of the Romantic Sublime, and brings these concepts into a post-modern context.
In the Analytic of the Sublime (1790), Kant mentions the concept of the parergon. The parergon is always seen in relation to the ergon, the work of art. He gives examples such as drapery on statues, colonnades around magnificent buildings and picture frames. The parergon seems merely decorative. Kant also links beauty with the defined, the bounded. A beautiful object must have clear outlines and a distinct form. The sublime is defined in opposition to this; the sublime is found in the formless, the unbounded. And yet there is a kind of boundary at work for the sublime to operate in. Kant argues for the priority of reason over the imagination, and gives an example of those sublime objects, the pyramids. The sublime only emerges in the viewer when looked at from a certain point of view, if they are too distant “then the apprehended parts… are presented only obscurely… and if one gets too close, then the eye needs some time to complete the apprehension from the base to the peak” (1987:108). The sublime, then is “an effect of a precise form of alignment; for the …sublime to be produced in us we must first establish a conceptual frame or parergon. Reason must step in…to control the excesses of ‘raw nature’” (Shaw, 2006: 118)
Jacques Derrida’s work on the sublime with his re-reading of Kant uses the parergon as a starting point. The frame of a work of art is integral to the work he argues. A parergon is not only the physical frame such as a canvas’ edge, but also the non-physical, the institutional context of a work of art. It is only through reason that the imagination’s failure to imagine infinity, to bound the concept of infinity and present it, is thus presented. It at first seems contradictory that the concept of the sublime, the overflowing of the limitless, the infinite, can have limits, frames, boundaries. Etymology shows us in the Latin roots of the word sublime that sub (up to) and limen (lintel, the top piece of a door) that those limits are encoded within the word itself. The critic Mark Cheetham has said of Derrida and Kant’s model of the processes of imagination and reason, “it is the ability thus to present our very inability to comprehend that constitutes the true sublime (Cheetham 2001) The pleasure that arises from the sublime is reason’s pleasure in the setting of limits. Unlike the Romantic Sublime, this pleasure doesn’t radiate from an awareness of something other or beyond human conception. For Kant and Derrida “the experience and pleasure of the sublime do not stem from the promise of something noumenal, outside a given frame, but rather from the perpetual…activity of framing itself, from the parergon.”
With Kant, Derrida and Friedrich in mind, I now want to look at the painting Red on Maroon (Mural Section 4) (1959) by Mark Rothko. It forms one part of the Seagram Mural series of paintings, were Rothko began to think of installation and environment. The form of the Seagram Murals was the first time Rothko had deviated from the structure of floating rectangular forms for over ten years. The familiar colour bars and fluffed rectangular shapes of the ‘50s paintings give way to new forms that were a possibly a reflection of the architectural space that this commission would eventually hang; the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram building. As opposed to the vertical stacking of his ‘classic’ work, there is a horizontal axis in these paintings. Six of the Seagram Murals consist of large history-painting sized canvases in a landscape format, with two vertical rectangular shapes supporting two thin horizontal shapes. The other paintings in the series are almost square in shape, just taller than they are wide. Again these feature the novel vertical bars supporting the horizontal bars. These paintings would be the only ones were an architectural monumentality would be so prominent in his work, as Rothko would not repeat the vertical bars in any other painting for the remaining eleven years of his life. These hollow rectangular shapes in the Murals are reminiscent of frames, complete with lintel. Rothko has noted an influence on his thinking for this series was the architecture of the Laurentian Library in Florence, especially Michelangelo’s stone windows. The library is “famed for its calculated claustrophobic atmosphere” (Borchardt-Hume, 2008), with tiers of walled-in windows layered on top of each other to the ceiling in a play of mass and form. Michelangelo’s window frames are classical and solidly geometrical, the windows themselves blind.
I stand before Red on Maroon. It is a particularly cold Sunday morning in January 2009. Inside the Tate, the lighting in the Rothko Room is low and muted – church atmospherics. The dark paintings in this large room, hanging surprisingly high on the wall, seem to hover in the air, like they have just pulled away from the wall by centimetres and by the force of their own will, they hover, looming high over me. I turn my back and can feel the paintings at the back of my neck. All together in this one room, the paintings seem to support each other. The similar size of each, the similar dark colours and tones all working together. Passages and forms in one painting are echoed and reiterated in another painting. The room is like a living network, a self- contained environment. Let me be there for you. Let me look for you. Let me look at this painting for you.
I stand before Red on Maroon and focus, by which I cut it loose from the support of the others. It has to stand alone for me now, stand under my gaze. There is something in the painting’s proportions that give it a human scale, and yet it is bigger than me. There is something even in its scale in relation to me standing before it – a relationship of some kind. The painting is 266 centimetres high by 230 centimetres wide. The background is various shades of maroon, dark at the bottom, rising to bright maroon and subtle pink in the centre of the canvas, and then fading again to dark maroon at the top of the canvas. Two thick red vertical bands are topped and tailed by two thinner horizontal bands. This arrangement forms a frame that fills the canvas, the top and base edges of the frame nearly touching the top and bottom edges of the canvas. The red frame itself is heavily glazed and I move slightly to one side to diffuse the light glare and focus on the painted marks. I walk closer and focus my attention fully on the painting. I’m close to where Rothko wanted the correct address for his paintings; close with the painting filling my field of vision. The whole painting, red frame and background have been painted quickly with large ragged brushwork that can be seen clearly from my position. The paint that makes up the background has been applied in various degrees of scrims, veils and gauzes and beneath this background there is an under glow of light. Towards the top and the bottom of the canvas the passages of magenta have been applied thickly and this has extinguished that light. It is towards the centre of the canvas that the colour seems to thin out to the fragile light; a fragile, subtle light akin to a pale sunrise on a misty winter’s morning. The intense red frame hovers in front of this background with an inherent sense of pure colour, the edges of which are scumbled and rough, as though in transition itself.
After registering surface details, I pull back my attention and I begin to move my vision in and out of focus around and through the painting. The intense red frame seems to pull out of the painting and advance into the spacebetween the painting and me. This arrangement lasts until I notice that the background has become a space that is quietly expanding and contracting, breathing. And in this breathing, the red frame seems to recede into this background space. Now it is foreground and the frame is distant, engulfed in the threading of the delicate colour passages. I am overcome with a feeling of fullness as the painting draws me in to itself. I am absorbed. A presence within the imminent light. The painting overcomes me.
I am lost, and yet I am aware that I am still here, I am still looking at the painting, I am in the act of looking and simultaneously experiencing deep feelings of both acute sadness and pleasure.
I am lost in sight and in the light. I am involved in an encounter with something both outside me and within.
There is both a feeling of safety and of danger here. I don’t want this moment to end, and it is with that thought that it does.
The moment fades.
I’m aware of myself standing in front of the painting in the Tate on a cold January morning.
The sublime is now.
The sublime moment fades.
Is there an alignment akin to Kant’s here? With the painting filling my field of vision, the correct address, I stand where Rothko stood while creating it. Rothko would sit and contemplate the canvas for hours, chain-smoking, then suddenly burst into action, working hurriedly in these bursts of energy. Is the work of art a channel for the communion between the artist and me? Is the painting a kind of transformative conduit, as for a brief moment, the sublime moment, I become the artist sharing his concerns, his vision?
Time is a major element in the sublime moment. It has duration, a beginning and an end. The moment itself opens out and seems beyond time, a transformative state, a change of consciousness, an ecstatic moment. Hollis Frampton was much concerned with the nature of time, as a filmmaker and essayist he explores and analyses its affects. He noted that film in itself is a paradox, the flow of time being simulated by a “succession of discrete and perfectly static instants.” (Frampton, 1983, p.74) He posits that time is “our name for an irreducible condition of our perception of phenomena” (p.75), it is a fixed property of how our consciousness experiences the world. Frampton talked about an ecstatic moment in relation to Historic Time in his essays Incisions in History / Segments of Eternity and Fragments of a Tesseract. Over the two essays he posits that historic time is a fiction composed of “sequential, artificial, isometric modules” (p.95) and has no place for consciousness. It is a perception of time that we are not part of, “the time of mechanistic ritual, of routine, automatic as metabolism.” (p.95) The measured passage of historic time can be interrupted, altered or even stopped by Ecstatic Time, “moments of intense passion during which perception seems vividly arrested” (p.79). In the Eighteenth Century, Burke and Kant had noted the relation of terror to the sublime, experiencing terror being one of the possible heightened moments of Frampton’s ecstatic time. “When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are delightful” (Burke 1990, p.36-7). With these “certain distances” and “certain modifications” you have the Kantian/Derridian alignment necessary to experience the sublime. Philip Shaw in his discussion of the sublime uses the example of a bungee jumper to highlight this idea. “The experience of bungee jumping is pleasurable because the person who engages in this activity is reasonably certain that the elastic cord will rescue him or her from catastrophe. The bungee jump mimics the suicidal descent into the abyss, providing the person who falls with a glimpse of what that descent might really entail.”(Shaw, p.54) After the experience, the jumper feels more alive, “more itself.”
So where is the terror in looking at a Rothko? I admit that the Tate is a place of safety, so half of Burke’s equation is ticked, but where is the terror? Is it the fear of losing oneself, the sense of self being overwhelmed and lost in the sublime moment? The Eighteenth Century Romantic poets seemed to mediate in the moments of complete annihilation of the self, the writing subject in the face of the terrible sublime. But there was always a paradox there, the poet was overwhelmed by the sublime but yet still described and expressed; the sublime seemed to be as much created by the poet’s self.
Lacanian theory offers an interpretation of the sublime at work in the psychology of the self. Hollis Frampton in his description of ecstatic time stated “consciousness seems to enter a separate temporal domain, one of whose chief characteristics is its apparent imperviousness to language.” (Frampton, p.97) In his psychoanalytical schema, Lacan is interested in how subjectivity can be construed as an effect of language. Language is a part of the social structure he terms as the Symbolic, pre-existing the individual, so a new relation to the self is initiated when the individual enters the world of words as an infant. This new relationship is characterised by a fundamental lack between the Real, the sense of wholeness that is now lost, and the Symbolic, the linguistic and social structures. The Real once exchanged for entry into the Symbolic is lost, it was outside of empirical reality in the first place and could never have been possessed and cannot be represented. Lacan introduces the ‘Thing’ as the emptiness at the centre of the Real without which signification could not occur. The Thing is a “kind of void or absence residing at the heart of signification” (Shaw, p.135). The sublime object for Lacan is an object “raised to the dignity of the Thing”. The sublime object indicates the terrible void at the centre of signification, the fundamental emptiness that is necessary for signification to occur. Lacan uses Freud’s model of the Pleasure Principle, the desire to regulate pleasure and pain, to illustrate our fascination with the sublime object. “It is the pleasure principle … that enables the subject to circle round the void, substituting the illusory satisfaction of the signifier for the deadly encounter with the Thing.” (Shaw, p. 136)
In his essay The Undergrowth of Enjoyment, Slavoj Zizek has used the Lacanian schema in his reading of Robert Heinlein’s 1942 science-fiction novella The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag. Towards the end of the novel, a husband and wife discover that the novel’s eponymous hero is a kind of cosmic artist from another universe; our universe being one of his experimental creations. He seeks to perfect it and will put right some minor blemishes over the next few hours. The husband and wife are assured they will notice nothing, but are warned that under no circumstances are they to open the car windows on their drive back home to New York. Events on the car journey eventually lead them to report an accident they have seen to a police officer. They wind down the window. “Outside the open window was no sunlight, no cops, no kids – nothing. Nothing but a grey and formless mist, pulsing slowly as if with inchoate life. They could see nothing of the city through it, not because it was too dense but because it was – empty. No sound came out of it; no movement showed in it. It merged with the frame of the window and began to drift inside.” In terror the couple roll up the window, only for the normal view of the city to be restored. Zizek reads this ‘grey and formless mist’ as the Real, “the pulsing of pre-symbolic substance in all its abhorrent vitality.” What is crucial for him though, is the car window, for this is where the Real interferes with reality: “it irrupts on the very boundary separating the ‘inside’ from the ‘outside’” (p. 19). The window is seen as the site of the projection of the outside world, it seems discontinuous with the world inside the car, as if reality is merely a projection on the windows, the episode with the couple in the car highlighting the psychotic terror of the Real’s intrusion on reality when the barrier between the two breaks down.
Zizek uses this towards an interpretation of Rothko’s ‘theme’, “the relation between reality and the Real.” (p.22) He reads Rothko’s work as reflective of his inner struggle to maintain the boundary between reality (the shared social linguistic framework) and the Real. The dark abstracts act as a formulation, foreground shapes struggling to preserve the distinction between “what must at all costs remain its background”. The paintings become a “manifestation of a fight to maintain the frontier separating reality from the Real, to prevent the Real from overflowing the entire field.” (p.23) Zizek reads the final paintings of Rothko’s life as an increasing failure with this struggle, and failure led to “psychotic autism” and death. So here is the terror. It is the struggle to keep the symbolic universe coherent, to stave away the psychotic breakdown that would occur with the destruction of the barrier separating reality from the Real.
“Now. The sublime is now then and only then now for all time for each of us.”
Friedrich packing to move to a new studio, a new life, dismantles the small shuttersfrom the left window and packs them in a wooden crate in the centre of the studio floor. The small room is empty now. Everything is packed away. Lightfloods through the window on this clear, cold January day. He looks around, onefinal glance at this space that was his studio forfourteen years. He looks at the right window and the dark wooden planks that board it up. They may be useful to direct light in his new studio. He leaves the room, returning momentarily with a rudimentary crow bar. Over the nextfew minutes he pries the boards awayfrom the window frame. They are stubborn to remove; they have been nailed here since before he started using this studio space. As he removes one by one, light shafts into the room. The window is the twin of its partner in the wall to the left. After placing the final board against the wall, he walks to the window and looks out. Below him and across the Elba smoke and dustfill the air. Piles of rubble and debris stretch as far as he can see into the low grey cloudbanks that hang heavy and inert over the town in a grey and formless mist.