Dwindling Greatness of Nature
Text: Bettina Haiss
In 1803, London pharmacist Luke Howard introduced his essay „On the modifications of clouds“ in which he presented the first practical classification of clouds. In describing these airy bodies, he devised three basic types that are still valid today, namely Cirrus (feather cloud), Cumulus (cluster cloud) and Stratus (stratus cloud). For German painter Caspar David Friedrich, however, such a systematic division of clouds into categories meant the „overthrow of landscape painting“. He refused to accept the confinement of the freely floating clouds into this repressive order. In Friedrich‘s romantic view, natural forms and their different appearances emerged from his inner, „mental eye“ as images of the soul.
Perhaps Andreas Gefeller pursues both a scientific inclination and a genuinely romantic impulse when exposing himself to the powerful elements for his photographic series Clouds (2019). Gefeller moves to the centre of the „Cloud Changeability“ (Walter Benjamin), where the humid air formations densely swell and their heavy protuberances of water vapour rise skywards. Huge billowing and constantly shifting masses rise up in front of him, looming like mountains high above. Often standing in backlight, the photographer directs his lens sometimes through impenetrable, voluminous masses, sometimes through feathery swaths.
Like Caspar David Friedrich‘s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, the artist—although not part of the picture—becomes part of the thermodynamic spectacle. The wanderer in the painting of 1818 looks out onto a wide field of wafting veils of milky mist, which, alternating with barren rocky peaks, stretches into the infinite distance. The moving fog accumulations seem to suspend all spatial dimensions, upsetting the individual sensation of height, width and depth of this lonesome subject in the face of the boundless expanse, wholly immersed in this changing view.
Up to the Romantic period, these fleeting atmospheric formations with their constantly changing proportions of air and water were considered outside the realm of what could be rendered or depicted. Within the representational bounds of linear perspective, their essentially indeterminate and nebulous quality eluded fixation. Through minimal interventions in the digital raw file, Andreas Gefeller now sharpens the contours and intensifies the colour values, through which these formerly indistinct shapes achieve a clearly defined form. Areas of light and shadow become clearly defined, whereas an astonishingly satiated spectrum of blue tones is revealed. With the mere help of white balance and contrast enhancement, the ephemeral phenomena acquire a surprisingly monumental corporeality and expressiveness in colour scheme.
It is important to realize that these highly artistic devices, which achieve results reminiscent of the illusionistic and dramatic effects of baroque painting, are merely technical tools. No invention is involved here, nor is a found condition artificially altered. Gefeller thus desists from manipulating the existing situation, his intention rather concentrates on bringing forth what is already there. Gefeller exposes the inherent properties of the physical phenomena of condensation and evaporation. The reflections of the sky in the tiniest drops of water produce a rich variety of colour nuances which now become perceptible. Rather dull shades of gray suddenly appear as luminous hues of blue. We now witness the „truth“ of clouds beyond human perception, an objective truth which is enclosed in the data of the raw file. The spectacular quality of the images is thus purely fact-based. In disclosing previously inaccessible areas of reality and making them visible to the naked eye the artist helps us viewers to obtain a comprehensive visual knowledge, a broader picture of the physical event, which turns into an unexpected aesthetic experience.
In surpassing the dimension of perception, Gefeller approaches the sublime with Modern means. The impression of nature evoked by the photographs recalls the overwhelming sensation, the feeling that overcomes human being in the face of immeasurable natural grandeur, which is related to the notion of the sublime. Already characterized in antiquity as the invisible, the indescribable, German philosopher Immanuel Kant attributes what lies beyond ordinary experience to the „inadequacy of our capacity for size estimation“, which is most clearly perceived in „that which is great per se“, i.e. that which is large beyond all comparison and beyond our judgement. In Romanticism, this grandeur exceeding rational thought might cause a shudder, a stagger, a sudden dizziness—up to the point of mortal fear. In these existential experiences of natural elemental force, nervous agitation is paired with attraction and the awe-inspiring beauty linked to the terrifying.
In Gefeller‘s work too, the beauty of the cloud is fatally connected to the terrible. The „truth“ of the depicted clouds not just refers to the means of representation, but also to the origin of the subject matter. Gefeller‘s impressive clouds are not natural occurrences; they arise as mighty water vapour emissions from the cooling towers of the coal-fired power station of Neurath, Germany. We recognize that what we perceive as a great natural occurrence is in reality an industrial waste product. the impression of beauty conveyed by the spectacle cracks and our concomitant rapture turns into disappointment.
The knowledge about these artificial creations removes whatever sensation of the sublime and its „delightful horror“—a pleasant fear, a marvelling thrill—had come up beforehand. Instead, a sense of strong discomfort sets in, along with a different type of recognition, namely, of man‘s destructive forces in relation to the environment. Although Gefeller takes up the romantic motif, he subjects it to a new, critical examination, in which the ideal view and real context blatantly fall apart. Although they evoke the impression of natural grandeur, the Clouds are an expression of the opposite, namely a nature weakened by ecological damage. The images are thus tragically paradoxical, for the majestic appearances of the Clouds come to stand for a dwindling greatness of nature. They depict a loss of natural abundance that the subject, conscious of his full responsibility for the desolate state nature is in, must painfully accept.
While in Romanticism the cloud was often a mirror of the changing states of the soul, the cloud now meaningfully hovers with undiminished eerie and beautiful power, bearing witness to the fundamental alienation of man from nature as the foundation of his life. And yet, in the immersive contemplation of Gefeller‘s Clouds—despite or precisely because of the ecological imbalance conjured up—the impression of unadulterated natural beauty and the profound longing associated with it remains: „We want to find our happiness in things that change or pass away at any moment; we should expect the utmost satisfaction and instruction from that which cannot be held and which is difficult to comprehend.” (John Ruskin)