The Vaporous Sublime

December 12, 2008

Click on photos for links. For a printed version click The Vaporous Sublime PDF

Detail from Cy Twombly’s Fifty Days at Illiam: The Fire that Consumes All Before It, 1978, © the Philadelphia Museum of Art

It’s next time again.

“I don’t really know anything about art, but I know what I like!”

This noble phrase, for many of us, has been a call to adventure to the alluring world of art. My friend, the art historian, Peter Weller likes to quote a very famous art scholar, E. H. Gombrich who in reference to this rather innocent phrase says,

“You know what you like and you like what you know.”

Professor Sir Ernst Gombrich (1909-2001) was knighted in 1988

As someone with a life-long fascination with art, Sir Gombrich really knew what he was talking about. His The Story of Art remains one of the most used textbooks in the world. His statement is not so innocent. It speaks to the larger issues of intimidation, the cultivation of taste, connoisseurship and how one distinguishes good art from bad. His comment applies to all art but even more to Contemporary Art. The “shock of the new” is part of art’s charm but it can also be a barrier to entry. “Liking what you know” really pokes a finger in my eye. But in my experience, I have found this to be a great truth about art and about life.

I’m struggling with this so I am really interested in what you think. Does knowing more about an artist, a painting, a musical composition, a building, or a style increase your enjoyment of the work?

In my case, I have found this invariably to be true. One great thinker told me I was addicted to the gratification of knowledge. Guilty as charged.

Imagine my shock, then, when some of the art history people I know and admire disparaged the descriptors used in museums. “Don’t read all that stuff, just look at the picture and experience it first hand.” In all its naked glory, I suppose. I found this to be strange and rather contradictory advice from these people with their sterling educations and pedigrees filled with impressive degrees. “Easy for you to say!” I wanted to scream. “Some of us need a little help over here with this stuff!”

Their side of the argument plays out like this. They don’t want the “experiment” to be sullied. As if they were using the scientific method, they don’t want you to make the ghastly mistake of invalidating the purity of the process with any preconceptions. This is sort of like the experience you might have had of taping a football game to watch later. Before you’ve had the chance to watch it, you find yourself desperately shouting to people, with your fingers in your ears, “Just shut up! Don’t tell me the score!” The game is the same, but your perception really changes if you already know how it ends. Another example is not wanting to read the "spoiler alert" before going to see the thriller. They would argue further, your unvarnished insight is every bit as worthwhile and valid as the “experts.”

On the other hand, going to see an exhibition without knowing anything about it is, for me, like watching a chess match when you don’t even know how to play the game. If I don’t know the rules, how am I supposed to have anything close to the experience of the aficionado next to me who is gasping in ecstasy with every genius move? I believe the more you know about almost anything you might enjoy, take your pick – basketball, cooking, music, chess, whatever – the more likely you are to enjoy it.

The facade of the aptly named Palazzo Diamanti in Ferrara

I’ll give you an example. There is a exhibition, Turner in Italy at the Palazzo Diamanti in Ferrara. I didn’t think I liked Turner all that much, but, over the years, in learning about him and experiencing his paintings, I have become a huge fan. I see him as someone breaking all sorts of boundaries. He is, for me, a perfect example of art at a crossroads. His early work is very pictorial and exact. He delights in capturing, in the days before photography, the realism of a scene. Then he comes to Venice, and in just five days – during which he makes 160 sketches – his mind gets blown by the famous Venetian light and his work becomes transformed.

Self Portrait of JMW Turner (1799), © The Tate Museum, London

Peter Ackryod, in a short biography, explains how Turner in Venice for the first time, “executed some wonderful water-colours of the Venetian morning, where the translucent and ethereal light of the city is evoked in washes of blue and yellow. That sense of light never left him. It irradiates much of the rest of his work. His oil-paintings of Venice, completed at a later date, glow upon the wall as if a bright light were shining through them. The effect of Venice upon him was altogether profound and seemed to grow in intensity as the years passed.”

San Salute in the Fog, JMW Turner (1840), © The Tate Museum, London

Ackroyd goes on to describe, “. . . the vaporous sublime, in which the material world is wreathed in a veil of majesty and in which the laying down of pure color elicits the most powerful and profound responses. He was trying to create a new sense of form as an inalienable property of light.”

I read Ackroyd’s Turner, before I went to the exhibition. It allowed me to take great joy in thinking about so many aspects of Turner’s life and work. I found out there is a daguerreotype of Turner taken in the late 1840’s by a man named Mayall. Turner was fascinated with the photographer’s prints of rainbows over Niagara Falls. Just imagine! Turner looking rapt at this breathtakingly modern, never before seen, photographic depiction of the spectrum in thin air.

It was a Daguerreotype like this one of Niagara Falls (circa 1849) by John J. E. Mayall, which astonished Turner

What if he could have seen it in color? He must have loved holding the photographic evidence of the ethereal. This sort of light filled his late work which was all about the depiction of “prismatic color”, vapor, mist and fog. What we see as abstract, or impressionistic, he may have seen as just another stab at realism. Turner’s life is just on the cusp of the new era of photography, and his art is a bellwether of turbulent seas in the art world.

In the coming years, art needed to be even more than just a faithfully rendered representation. One scholar points out Turner starts what Monet finishes. His most daring canvases, painted in his later years, are shockingly modern. To me, they look every bit as exhilarating as a gorgeous Cy Twombly. Standing in front of Turner’s pictures, in the Ferrara museum, I was astonished. What in the world did people think of him back in 1845 when these abstract, out of focus, bleary, outrageously obscure canvases were not yet dry? I’m sure that he was deeply wounded at being called a madman. Thanks to Ackroyd’s research, I knew even more about Turner’s courage. His mother had died in an insane asylum. Ackroyd pondered how vicious this particular criticism must have been for him and my experience of the paintings was enhanced, not diminished, by knowing these details.

Reading about his life before I saw the exhibition made it a hundred times more thrilling for me. On the other hand, is my clumsy pursuit of knowledge eclipsing a more rarified and subtle experience? Am I looking for clarity when I should be enjoying the fog?

What is your experience? Both of these points of view are valid. In discussing this with my Venetian friend, Tudi Samartini, who writes about art and who as a girl of twelve served the great art historian Bernard Berenson his tea, she said, “But art is not a chess game. It is not all about being intellectual, there are emotional aspects as well.” Ok, ok, I get it. I over-intellectualize everything, tell me something I don’t know. What about you? Do you find that knowing more increases or decreases your experience – emotional, intellectual or otherwise?

I honestly do feel art is much more than the gratification of knowledge. It is more than gratification period. This gets pretty sticky pretty quickly. Gratification of knowledge is a quote from Kant. He writes about the hungry man looking at pictures of food. Kant wants to know about the essential reality of the food independent of the hunger. I think the hunger is a euphemism for lust. He might as well be talking about the lustful man looking at nudes – the male gaze. Graham Greene has a great phrase for this. His main character, who is on a train, is looking at a woman down the corridor and Greene observes,“he would have regarded her as a game for the senses.”

Sunset over a Lake, by JMW Turner (circa 1840), © Tate Museum, London

I think there is much more in art than a game for the senses. Beauty stands apart from lust as food stands apart from hunger, but that doesn’t mean a great meal is not all the more satisfying when you are hungry. Is this perhaps where the phrase, “thirst for knowledge” becomes quenched?

You can see I’m rather tied up in knots about all this. I’m hoping your insights and experiences will untangle this mess.

Until next time with much love,


  • martina says:

    My God, that photo is wonderful!! I loved Turner at the Tate from the first moment I saw his paintings, as an intuitive but uneducated 14 year old. I stood in front of them with my mouth open, and tears in my eyes. My father was a painter, and he also almost cried, standing there. I have loved Turner’s paintings deeply, like a homing pigeon, to light on water, the essentials of modern art. and in NY I would always go to the Frick to stand in front of one, and dive into that sunlight inside mist that he was so masterful at painting. Of course it helps to know that he was English, and that the sunlight in England seems so weak and easily conquered by fog and rain. I am sure Venice was just amazing to him, as his paintings show. I really never learned anything about his life. I love the Monets which are painted for the same question, light and fog, “vaporous sublime;” greasy, smoggy sky or rainy cloudy, mixed with rain, over water. There is one at the Musée Marmottan-Monet in Paris, of a train on a bridge, with a smouldering sunset, and the train is pouring the extra steam into that smoggy sky– a turn-of-the-century steam engine on steel girders, over water. Marvelous. One thinks of the poem by G.M. Hopkins about God’s Grandeur– “bleared, smeared with trade…” Anyway, I couldn’t believe you didn’t love Turner’s work from the beginning, without even knowing anything. The gold, the edge of transcendence… but perhaps the modern instinct for the photographic, with the hard edges of reality is more gripping to some… personally, I will never tire of the rapturous light in the Turners… I loved what Sarah Gridley had to say, thanks for that, too!

    New contributor Martina Nicholson is an OB/GYN and a poet who lives in Santa Cruz – TB

  • editor says:

    San Michele church in fog

    For those of you who may want to read a review of the Turner show by Venetian resident Roderick Conway Morris please check out this link from the NYT: Turner in Italy.

    I could not resist posting this photograph (for a full size version click here) taken at 4:30 in the afternoon of the San Michele Church designed in by Codussi. He brought the Renaissance to Venetian architecture. The Vaporous Sublime indeed. – TB

  • Mark Bowles says:

    You pose a very compelling question Tom: “Does knowing more about an artist, a painting, a musical composition, a building, or a style increase your enjoyment of the work?” My response is that, for me, the element of time must be involved.

    Let me start with the banal and work towards the vaporous sublime. You mentioned taping a football game and watching it some hours after its conclusion. Every Sunday I impose a “media blackout” upon myself and all around me as my DVR records the often inglorious Cleveland Browns game. It never fails to amuse my wife the lengths I will go in public to avoid knowledge of the event. I may see someone with a radio and before I can look away and plug my ears I will gauge his facial expression (Happy, sad, tension, relief, disgust? He is still listening, the game must at least be close.) I will then sit down long after the conclusion and watch it, but only if the blackout has been successful.

    The same, but more extensive, blackout phenomenon occurs with movies that I am anxious to see. My least favorite part of the movie-going experience is the preview of a film I am already looking forward to. For example, with the Lord of the Rings Trilogy (ok, I sadly don’t get out to the theater often anymore), I attempted to remain completely blind to the look, feel, or idea that Peter Jackson had in crafting it. That meant walking out of a theater if a projectionist tried to ruin my anticipation with a preview. Off would go the TV if I heard mention of the Fellowship, and loud were my screams if I came close to catching a glimpse of a McDonald’s Happy Meal toy “inspired by the film.” Luckily I finally achieved my goal. I still vividly remember sitting in that dark with such eager anticipation to find out if the Tolkein visions in my head, created through multiple readings of the books, could ever be realized upon the screen. I was not disappointed. I am convinced that keeping myself in the dark made the eventual experience that much more thrilling.

    Now after I have seen that work of art (film, painting, symphony, book, Kasparov match, etc.) for the first time, then I begin to hunger for the critic and the context. If I am inspired by something then I seek out those that know more than me (so easy to find) and eagerly listen to their explanation of what I just encountered. I must do it in that order. If I go to the critic first, I have no frame of reference for the discussion and I quickly zone out. Then when I do encounter the object in question, the thrill of the raw, blind experience is dulled by the voice of the critic recalled in my head. For me, the goal is to preserve the virgin encounter, then seek out knowledge of what I saw and felt, and then return armed with the remembrance of that first experience and the new wisdom of interpretive context. That resulting synthesis can be very fulfilling.

    Enjoy the fog. Then think of a weathered ship captain who knows the landscape so well he can return to the foggy waters and sail through the density no matter the thickness and truly appreciate the smell of the ocean, the texture of the dew upon his lips, and the confidence in his ability to navigate through to the other side. That IS the vaporous sublime.

    Mark Bowles is a historian and posts here faithfully. His work can be explored at – TB

  • Paulette Faulkner says:

    My experience of knowing about a film before I saw it goes back many years and it was recommended to me by a friend who also took pains to tell us all the jokes and funny bits. When we did get to see it, it was completely spoilt for us. Thus, I would prefer to come to a work of art/film/architecture completely fresh and able to make up my own mind. Afterwards, I appreciate more knowledge and discussion.

    Paulette Faulkner adores Venice and resides in Poole, U.K. – TB

  • Sarah Gridley says:

    Turner was reported (by Ruskin?) to have said, very near to his death, “The sun is God.” Do I need to know this piece of biographical information to feel it immediately in every glorious yellow atom of his work?

    I recall another anecdote about Turner: that he lashed himself to the mast of a ship for during four hours of squall as preliminary “work” for his painting, “Snowstorm.” From the Royal Academy catalogue of 1842: ‘Snowstorm – steam boat off a harbor’s mouth making signals in shallow water, and going by the lead. The author was in this storm on the night the Ariel left Harwich.’

    Said Turner: “I only painted it because I wished to show what such a scene was like; I got the sailors to lash me to the mast to observe it; I was lashed for four hours and did not expect to escape, but I felt bound to record it if I did. No one has any business to like it.”

    The art historian Kenneth Clark wrote of this painting: “MY FIRST EMOTION is sharpened by amazement. There is nothing else remotely like it in European art, except, of course, other pictures by Turner, and I can understand why, until recently, critics brought up in the classical tradition were unwilling to accept such a freak. Not only is the subject exceptional, but the whole rhythmic organization is outside the accepted modulus of European landscape painting. We have been brought up to expect inside a frame a certain degree of balance and stability. But in Turner’s Snowstorm nothing comes to rest. The swathes of snow and water swing about in a wholly unpredictable manner, and their impetus is deflected by contrary movements of spray and mysterious striations of light. To look at them for long is an uncomfortable, even an exhausting, experience.”

    Philosophers (Burke, Kant, Lyotard, to name a few) have a lot to say about the difference between the beautiful and the sublime, but most agree that the sublime experience is a “deconstructive” one, self-displacing and disorienting. Beauty we can contemplate disinterestedly, knowingly, without risk of override. Beauty I think of as operating in an intellectual register; for me, it is perception “domesticated” by conceptual categories. The sublime transgresses our categories, comes crashing over the transom, flooding our reason.

    To look at a Turner painting, especially one like “Snowstorm,” is to stand at the mercy of embodied knowledge, knowledge that doesn’t remove to the chilly attic of the head, but courses through the cells like fire. We are synaptic creatures, and it is electricity that holds us enthralled. To forget that brute, elemental “price of admission” into the art world is a shame, I think. We can always work systematically forward into knowing, but can we ever work backward to the precipitous feeling, the wild threshold to knowing?

    Is it patronizing for someone in possession of all the knowledge to tell someone else they don’t need it? Is it patronizing to tell them they do? Looking at art must always be embedded in questions of class, education, politics. Is an unmediated experience more or less democratic? Is there even such a thing as an “unmediated experience”? Can we lay claim to anything like “pure perception”? No, but I think it is important to dig for it, under all the accumulations of what we think we know.

    The poet Jorie Graham once articulated a truth that has stuck with me since I heard her say it: “we have community through our bodies.” Our bodies are the starting points we have in common. Our ideas, our ideologies, our “schools of thought” are more often than not what obscure that vital solidarity.

    The poet Antonio Porchia wrote, in his book of aphorisms, Voces, “Set out from any point. They are all alike. They all lead to a point of departure.”In looking at art, should our “point of departure” be information about the art, or de-contextualized contact with the art work itself? An Antinomian by temperament, I am more inclined to privilege the latter, while acknowledging the value of the former, as phase two, three, four, etc.

    To stand in wonder, in confusion, in irresolution, is just too valuable an experience for me to bypass. The frontiersman Daniel Boone, at the end of his life, was asked by his portraitist whether he ever got “lost” in the wilderness. Boone replied that he was never lost, but that he was “bewildered once for three days.” Hooray for bewilderment.

    In the poetry world, camps break up over questions of accessibility and “difficulty.” Wallace Stevens, often put into the category of a “difficult” or “intellectual” poet, wrote this of his craft: “People should like poetry the way a child likes snow. And they would if poets wrote it.”

    Another poet, A.R. Ammons, refused to “explain” what a poem is or does: “I can’t tell you where a poem comes from, what it is, or what it is for…The reason I can’t tell you is that the purpose of a poem is to go past telling, to be recognized by burning.”

    I recognize a Turner painting by its singular kind of burning. As would, I think, any “unschooled” child.

    The sun is God. Happy Solstice!

    Sarah Gridley is the Poet in Residence at Case Western Reserve University. One of her books is Weather Eye Open – TB

  • Jolie Blanchard says:

    Most memorable and life-changing experiences that happen in realm of art

    contain both emotion and intelligence. I experienced this in 1994 at a

    Willem de Kooning exhibit in Washington DC, in a small group led by the

    curator, Marla Prather. Marla displayed keen emotional reactions to the de

    Kooning works, while at the same time describing the circumstances in which

    the artist undertook each piece (where he was physically, mentally and

    emotionally, how his technique developed, etc.) Marla displayed “Emotional

    Intelligence”, a term coined in the 1990s. I think of Emotional

    Intelligence as the ability to perceive and remain open to emotion, in

    yourself and in others, without letting your intellect or any preconceived

    ideas dominate or rule.

    Marla’s plan for hanging the collection of de Kooning paintings in the East

    Wing of the National Gallery was to use smaller galleries beginning at the

    base level of the building, ascending by stairs to smaller galleries on

    higher and higher levels. This was a genius move which allowed the visitor

    to be caught by surprise. As she led my small group through the exhibit,

    we climbed to the top level, turned left at a sharp corner, and were

    suddenly faced with a resplendent painting infused with natural light from

    a muted skylight.

    de Kooning

    Marla was saying something about de Kooning moving from

    Manhattan to a rural part of Long Island, but I was carried away into the

    painting and her voice was only a distant hum. The painting, “Door to a

    River”, touched off a series of simultaneous thoughts and I felt something

    open up inside that I can only describe as the awe and magnificence of life

    and death. Without any feelings of sadness, my eyes began to pour tears.

    “Door to the River” seemed to have been intended for me. I recalled having

    dreamt of that very door many times, with the precise display of colors and

    the same emotions. That slant stroke of paint surrounded by radiant light

    invited me to the great and mysterious unknown; the other side. And I

    began to sing beneath my breath an African American folk song taught to me

    by songwriter and actor Jester Hairston. Jester told me that the River

    Jordan referred to in so many of the old songs is representative of the

    ocean the slaves were forced to cross. They yearned to cross back over

    that great water, over “Jordan”, even if it were only in death, to get to

    heaven, to a better place, back home, to “campground”. These memories came

    immediately to my heart and mind with a new understanding as I stood before

    “Door to a River”.

    Deep River, my home is over Jordan.

    Deep River, Lord!

    I want to cross over into Campground.

    Oh, don’t you want to go

    To that gospel feast?

    To that Promised Land, that Land!

    Where all is Peace?

    Would I have had the same experience had it not been for the emotional

    intelligence of the curator? By allowing her emotions to inform her, Marla

    collected and hung the paintings to their best possible advantage,

    beginning with de Kooning’s worldly paintings of garish women at the base

    of the museum and ascending to higher and higher levels of spiritual beauty

    and truth.

    Jolie Blanchard is the Firm Director of Recruiting for Jones Day. She is based in Washington D. C. – TB

  • Dear Tom,

    Congratulations once again for such a great topic! As an artist, I get to experience people’s questions about my work. As the creator of a piece, I feel a bit responsible to share some information. Because I do portraits, usually the first question is…”Who is the subject?”, or…”Is that a pastel? it looks like an oil”. Fortunately I enjoy storytelling, so I can briefly give some interesting depiction of the sitter and the technique that I used. Nevertheless, I also want people to explore the painting on their own terms, without giving away all the symbolism, and details about it. Many times, I can be surprised of what people come out with. If the viewer is seeing the portrait of a pensive child, he may think that it’s a lovely expression, while somebody else may think the child is sad…or I may be asked why the child is not smiling? In order to defend this last question, I often ask the viewer when was the last time that he saw a portrait with an open smile in a Museum? Yes, maybe most sitters were missing teeth then, and the Colgate smile was not stamped in every corner, however, I feel it’s important to give some information to the viewer to enjoy and understand the vision of my work. (By the way, Frans Hals got away doing smiles, however, the sitters were either playing with their children or about to perform an action).

    When I was a student, I didn’t like Cubism, simply because I didn’t understand it. It took a class where we were taught Picasso’s intentions, and suddenly the veil was raised, and I was able to enjoy it! I certainly take pleasure knowing about an artist and his (her) work, in order to fully understand and enjoy the paintings.

    Happy Holidays!


    – Juan Bastos posts here faithfully and lives in Los Angeles – TB

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