27 The Picturesque, Sublime, and Climate Change

Piper Vladock

In this class, we discussed different types of landscape paintings. For example, the picturesque and the sublime were common styles of landscape images during the 19th century. The goal of the picturesque was to present a perfect/idealized scene of nature whereas the sublime aimed to present an image that showcased the strength of nature, and how humans were powerless to it. I feel that these styles of landscape images have connections to the current climate change crisis and the power dynamics surrounding it.

Landscape art is not politically neutral and people in positions of power can dictate how people interpret climate change. For example, oil companies would likely showcase picturesque scenes of nature to promote their business as clean and does not cause harm to the environment. This practice of greenwashing can convince many people that the problem doesn’t exist or is not as bad as scientists make it seem. Conversely, environmental activists tend to depict nature in a manner that highlights and calls for attention to natural disasters (ex. forest fires, hurricanes, floods) and the human impact (ex. clear-cut forests, water pollution) on the environment. This is to counter the images that businesses produce and show people what is going on in the world.

A number of contemporary artists engage with environmental issues, connecting emotions to climate change and rebelling the current power systems. Christopher Volpe has argued that art is a way to communicate science to the audience in a way that is easy to understand and applicable to their experiences.1 They also mention how art can be used as an effective method to communicate science to a population and incite change.2 In the article, Volpe states that “The project exemplifies art’s ability to cut through obfuscation and bring experiential relevance to potentially dry scientific material”.3  Then these images that connect to the viewer emotionally can be used to normalize and educate many of our views of climate change, again interrupting the dominant views of nature.

Volpe also highlights many artists in the article and their collaboration with climate scientists to create their works, effectively combining art and science in an image.4 The works mentioned in the article hint at the sublime as many pieces focus on the power and violence of nature, like glaciers cracking and crumbling into the sea.5 Something I didn’t expect to see was how artist Zaria Forman chose to show the fragility of glaciers.6 Forman uses pastels to create hyper-realistic drawings of glaciers based on photos she captured.7 This falls into a category that is neither sublime nor picturesque. However, it does involve aspects of the two, such as the uncontrollable aspect present in the sublime, but also the delicate feel of picturesque images. In 19th century European art, there were heavy categories placed on art. Regarding landscapes, the picturesque and sublime are examples of these categories. These categories can be blurred or combined into something that fits our current time. Using Forman as an example, the picture is picturesque because it appears like a hyper-realistic glacier which light pastel colours create a serene, gentle image.8 Yet the work is also sublime because of the context of our present day, as climate change results in many of these glaciers breaking and melting apart, while as many of us are powerless and left to watch. The categories and aesthetics of the 19th century don’t necessarily fit into the 21st century, so the breaking down of these old categories and rebuilding and combining them better suits the needs of 21st century artists

The collaboration of artists and scientists allows for the images and culture surrounding climate change to influence a larger audience. Forman’s collection of works featuring pastel glaciers is a prime example of this.  They help to normalize the idea of climate change by presenting images in a way that is both scientific and able to relate to the emotions of the viewers. The normalization of these images also influences the power structures of depicting climate change.

1 Christopher Volpe, “ART AND CLIMATE CHANGE: CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS RESPOND TO GLOBAL CRISIS,” Zygon 53, no. 2 (2018): 618, https://doi.org/10.1111/zygo.12413.
2 Volpe, 618.
3 Volpe, 618.
4 Volpe, 618.
5 Volpe, 616.
6 Volpe, 618.
7 Volpe, 618.
8 Volpe, 618.


Volpe, Christopher. “ART AND CLIMATE CHANGE: CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS RESPOND TO GLOBAL CRISIS.” Zygon 53, no. 2 (2018): 613–623, https://doi.org/10.1111/zygo.12413.


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