“Whereas the beautiful is limited, the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt”
― Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason
‘What is the explanation of the seemingly insane drive of man to be painter and poet if it is not an act of defiance against man’s fall and an assertion that he return to the Garden of Eden? For the artists are the first men.’’
— Barnett Newman
Before I begin my deconstruction and then a reconstruction of this work by the abstract expressionist Barnett Newman I must make a confession. It seems very appropriate in front of this image. I have never seen this painting in situ. My analysis is based upon the reproduced image and my own assertions and, upon comments made by those who have seen it up close, and personal. There is of course a difference, for a mediated image does not have the same effect and affect as the immediacy of the moment in front of the artists creation.
But, as I will argue much of this effect and affect of Vir Heroicus Sublimus is not necessarily a product directly of sensation but of pure cognition and intellectual correspondences. Not the eye, nor, even a way of seeing, is necessary, but, the ‘I’ of the mind and its existential awareness first expressed by Descartes in his ‘Cogito ergo sum’ is most definitely a necessary prerequisite to full comprehension of the artistic intention. That will be my main contention.
When we look at the painting what do we see? A huge block of slightly modulated colour — red — is broken by 3 distinct horizontal lines or ‘zips’ as they have become known. There are other fainter lines within the painting which disturb this field of colour. Like most abstract expressionists, Newman worked with large-scale canvasses in an attempt to make a large impact on viewers. Vir Heroicus Sublimis was his largest attempt yet at the time he released it in 1951, at 7’ 11⅜" tall by 17’ 9¼" wide. And like his other works the zips were to give the work scale and serve as a contrast to the massive colour field; however, they were not to be viewed as separate entities but that hasn't stopped art historians from viewing them as such.
And as for the title. It is Latin. Translated it reads ‘Man, Heroic and Sublime’. The titles of Newman’s paintings were chosen carefully and speak to the intellectual weight he wished to impart in these constructs. When we think of the Latin language we inevitably think of the Roman Empire, its grandeur and its glory — the heroic and the sublime. It was during the 1st century AD that a Roman-era Greek work of aesthetics and literary criticism was written by Longinus titled ‘On the Sublime’.
Along with the expected examples from Homer and other figures of Greek culture, Longinus refers to a passage from Genesis, which is quite unusual for the 1st century:
A similar effect was achieved by the lawgiver of the Jews — no mean genius, for he both understood and gave expression to the power of the divinity as it deserved — when he wrote at the very beginning of his laws, and I quote his words: “God said,” — what was it? — “Let there be light, and there was. Let there be earth, and there was.”
— On the Sublime 9.9
Newman’s next work Adam (1951–52) has been likened to the Book of Genesis, and the zips in that work have been interpreted as references to the concept that God and man exist as a single beam of light. So much for those ‘zips’ not being separate entities.
Given his positive reference to Genesis, Longinus has been assumed to be either a Hellenized Jew or readily familiar with the Jewish culture. As such, Longinus emphasizes that, to be a truly great writer, authors must have “moral excellence”. Although Newman’s paintings appear to be purely abstract, and many of them were originally untitled, the names he later gave them hinted at specific subjects being addressed, often with a Jewish theme. Two paintings from the early 1950's, for example, are called Adam and Eve. There is also Uriel (1954), and Abraham (1949), a very dark painting which, as well as being the name of a biblical patriarch, was also the name of Newman’s father, who had died in 1947.
Newman was himself Jewish. For me there is no doubt that the heroic and the sublime in the title of this painting — and in all Newman’s oeuvre — alludes to this attempt by humanity to achieve moral excellence through heroism and the contemplation or experience of the sublime. The words Newman has chosen echoes Longinus but he only had contemporaneous authors to look at whereas Newman had nearly another two-thousand years of history, philosophy and art to allude to.
For more on the aesthetics of the sublime we must turn to Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) and then to Immanuel Kant who wanted to build upon the ‘‘Empirical psychology’’ of Burke and reach absolute principles and make aesthetic judgments possible.
Kant’s Analytic of the Sublime is a thirty-one-part essay in the second book of the Critique of Judgement. Published in 1790, this Third Critique was the final book in the trio of Kant’s ‘Critical philosophy’ — succeeding the Critique of Pure Reason of 1781, and the Critique of Practical Reason of 1788. Kant introduces us to the notion of the sublime via a transition from the beautiful.
The pleasure yielded by experiencing the sublime generates, for Kant, a movement of the mind rather than the restful contemplation as experienced by the beautiful (Kant, 1790). This cognitive sense of movement between thoughts thrusts our contemplation out of a comfort zone and can only re-enter once some sense of rationality is reclaimed. This oscillation is fundamental to Kant’s notion of the sublime: the negation of the rational creates violence to the imagination.
Both Rothko and Newman were deeply shaken by the horrors of World War Two and the Holocaust — both as men and as artists. The terror of the dark Abyss had been revealed to humanity and they as artists were now trying to reconfigure an artistic view of the world to both deal with this horror on an emotional level and to try to explain it on an existential level.
They first began with Greek myth and legend, which were just not able to appropriate and explain the levels of existential horror and evil involved. Only abstract expressionism with its unlimited levels of formlessness and unlimited — sub-liminal — boundaries would suffice to act as a methodology and intellectual resource to comprehend mankind’s moral and spiritual crisis.
In 1948 Barnett Newman’s seminal text The Sublime is Now thrust the term into a visual arts context, and demanded the apprehension of it within the American Abstract Expressionist movement of the mid-twentieth century,
We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or “life,” we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings. The image we produce is the self-evident one of revelation, real and concrete, that can be understood by anyone who will look at it without the nostalgic glasses of history.
They are the ‘‘first men’’ of a new art form — Abstract Expressionism. Yet Newman’s new age aesthetic seems to be at odds with the very society he is now creating art in, the new Rome flexing its muscles around the World, based upon mass production and consumerism. An America now involved in Korea, with the Cold War about to get very hot indeed. Not to mention, the McCarthy witchunts for Communist sympathisers, about to kick-off. An Empire unconcerned with spiritual matters. And perhaps more importantly for Newman as man and artist, for all his protestations about ‘‘freeing ourselves’’ the presence of God, hangs heavy over his ‘‘memory’’ and ‘‘association’’.
It feels to me that Vir Heroicus Sublimus is an attempt by Newman to encourage a new way of thinking about man, God and morality where the connection between the feeling of the sublime and fear — the fear of God — is finally broken and replaced by our own heroic acceptance of contingency and the existential angst that produces.
I think that is partly what he was trying to achieve but there was far more at work here. I see a deeply religious painting that might even be subtly mocking the very title that he gave his work. How can anyone in their right mind call being human both heroic and sublime? And especially after the atrocity exhibition that was World War Two? Yes of course there had been heroes. Thousands and thousands of ordinary men and women fought, suffered and sacrificed themselves to defeat Germany and Japan. But the sublime?
The absurdity of man as heroic and sublime is enough to surely make even God laugh. Is it too obvious to state, that a monumental canvas, painted in red, is possibly referencing the blood that humanity has just spilt in an atavistic barbarism unequaled in human history? Or must we accept this atrocity and not see it through the ‘‘nostalgic glasses of history’’ as Newman wishes? Or is my reaction exactly what Newman intended?
For his work ‘Stations Of The Cross’ a series of black and white paintings (1958–1966), is usually regarded as the peak of his achievement. It is subtitled Lema sabachthani — “Why have you forsaken me” — the last words spoken by Jesus on the cross, according to the New Testament. Newman saw these words as having universal significance in his own time. The series has also been seen as a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.
For in that moment upon the cross it was Jesus who encapsulated both the human and the sublime. It was his sacrifice that would atone for the sins of humanity. As it was the blood of millions that would atone for the sins of humanity in World War Two. For God had forsaken us. The blood red canvas shows us that moment. I see Vir Heroicus Sublimus by Barnett Newman as a Crucifixion scene. Not of a single man but of the whole of humanity. We are here being portrayed non-figuratively as the heroic subject. But what of the sublime?
The sublime in Burke and Kant is engendered by fear. However, not all objects that arouse fear are regarded as sublime. Kant steers the definition to allude to events in nature, and provides us with a highly descriptive and poetic passage that flirts with the horror and calamity of thunderous clouds, volcanic eruptions, catastrophic hurricanes and the tumultuous waves of the ocean (Kant, 1790).
Rosenblum in The Abstract Sublime would state
‘during the Romantic era, the sublimities of nature gave proof of the divine; today, such supernatural experiences are conveyed through the abstract medium of paint alone. What used to be pantheism has now become a kind of “paint-theism”’
So the ‘divine’ is still around and can be expressed in abstract expressionism? We must work harder now to ‘see’ it then. But if it is without any form how do we experience it in art now? It can only be through the mind. Cogito ergo sum.
Vir Heroicus Sublimus and I would contend all of the work of the ‘American Vanguard’ (Rosenberg, 1952) conveys a simulacrum of the sublime. For these artists are conveying their fear. God has forsaken us and our fear is in existing without the Godhead. Their monumental, man-made, paintings conceptualise just that.
As we look at the paintings of both Newman and Rothko we see our metaphysical break from the omniscience of God and the resultant existential freedom replaces this deep psychic loss and removal of our safety net. Yet this creates both our freedom and a new fear. We are now free. Yet such great freedom must be accompanied by fear as we are are completely and utterly on our own now. Some of us may even feel terror, if we fully face and comprehend the immensity of the transition.
So where now is the sublime? It is now within every single one of us, and ‘Man, Heroic and Sublime’ by Barnett Newman really does encapsulate just that.