When 19th-century painters such as JMW Turner wanted to grapple with the sublime — which they did with obsessive regularity — they turned to nature’s terrors. Art offered Alpine storms, raging whitecaps, floods and earthquakes, all of which viewers could observe in the comfort of the gallery. Just as horror films stoke fear and also provide solace (that can’t happen to me!), the artistic sublime provoked a frisson of vicarious suffering.
Landscapes After Ruskin: Redefining the Sublime, a distressingly enchanting exhibition at the Grey Art Gallery in New York, updates the notion of fearsome nature. Now it’s human encroachments that threaten water, sky and land, while artists record the conflict with apprehension and dread. The Romantics could still choose to see people as cowering victims of God’s wrath, meted out in acts of impersonal violence. Contemporary artists have no such illusions. They see calamity as the wages of human arrogance.