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The Art of the Sublime

The Art of the Sublime

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Inspired by local landscapes, painter Simon Edwards creates artworks that overwhelm the senses. Words: Anne Hudson

Art_Thursday133Simon Edwards is a regular contributor to Art in A Garden and it is there that I first saw his beautiful paintings. They stand out in their execution of an atmospheric landscape, familiar to most New Zealanders even if unable to pin point their actual location.
Edwards was born in Christchurch, where he attended art school at the University of Canterbury and continues to live and work. It is, therefore, only natural that the South Island landscape should be the source of his work. In his artist statement he describes himself as a modernist in that he is aware of his materials, conscious of his methodology and follows traditional forms of the landscape. In the process of painting he builds up a dialogue between the medium, the landscape and himself.
However, Edwards’ paintings go beyond being a record of a place, they invite us to consider: what is beauty; what is the sublime? The subject matter is of the physical world; mountains, the ocean, the sky, and the elements of wind, ice, rain, and fire, painted in a way that we are drawn into beautiful – but perilous – landscapes.

In 3000AD, ‘Longinus’ put forward a theory that great words or rhetoric could move us, transcend our everyday thoughts and emotions creating a feeling beyond words, beyond metaphor and symbolism. These words elevated the soul. Later, in the 17th century, Englishman Edmund Burke popularised this idea. He contended that the sublime was a response to objects in nature or music and art that moved us in a way that we feared for our mortality. He said that terror at a safe distance produced a notion of the sublime, whereas beauty created a feeling of relaxing pleasure. Immanuel Kant took the notion of the sublime further. He felt that some natural phenomena were beyond man’s comprehension. The phenomena were so immense man did not have the words to explain it, in fact, could not get his head around the idea.

Edwards deals with all this in his paintings. He paints mountains that overwhelm us with their grandeur, fire storms that threaten our life, stormy oceans that, should we sail on them, we would surely meet our doom. By tapping into the 19th-century romantic tradition of landscape paintings, such as Joseph Turner and John Constable, Edwards conveys the mystery and majesty of our landscape in a way that promotes a sense of fear of its enormity and a calm at its beauty. His ethereal fragments of the imagination share with us – through the form, material and colour of his paintings – a notion of the sublime.
This is a notion that the population of Canterbury well understands after being confronted with earthquakes and fires. These incidents were often described as surreal in that they were beyond normal reality and hard to describe, when in fact they were sublime. The experiences were beyond our capacity to understand them, but at the same time provided insight into our human condition, hope of something beyond us, something beyond the structures of our human brain, an inkling of our immortality.Canterbury is fortunate to have the paintings of Edwards to articulate this for them.