A Sense of Awe: science, faith and wonder
November 5, 2011 3

Awe in the Landscape – Painting Milford Sound

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Sarah Tomasetti is a Melbourne landscape artist and kindly agreed to write a piece for A Sense of Awe about her experiences. Sarah gained a professional qualification in fresco painting in Italy in 1995. Her work is held in a number of collections including Artbank, Macquarie Bank, National Australia Bank, BHP, Grafton Regional Gallery and in private collections in Australia and overseas. (Click on the images to enlarge them.)

Night Sequence

Like many artists before me, I am compulsively drawn to the great wild romantic landscapes of history. I am intrigued by how we need this sense of something extraordinary that lies beyond ourselves, how we have sought this through encounters with the natural world, and how, in turn, landscape painting has historically charted our cultural relationship to nature.

I recently revisited Fiordland in New Zealand and walked the Milford Track. On the fifth day one emerges at Sandfly point to take a boat across Milford Sound, the site of Von Guerard’s famous late 19th Century painting of the same name. From roughly the same viewpoint I embarked on further studies of The Lion, an iconic rock that rises with stately certainty from the tannin tinged waters of the Sound.

Kayaking close to the base, one is struck by the vertiginous nature of the granite sides that continue uninterrupted below the waterline.  There is nothing resembling a shore or even so much as a foothold in a rock face carved out by a glacier.  In the presence of such scale I am reminded of Kate Rigby’s conclusion to her book Topographies of the Sacred, that ‘there is something we might carry forward from romanticism: the art of dwelling ecstatically amidst the elemental, the uninhabitable, and the incomprehensible.’ *

The Lion

Painting The Lion felt, in some symbolic sense, like coming home, in the sense of engaging with the deep human wish for eternal, unchanging presence; for many found in faith, in nature, or the celestial realm of the sky.  The Lion is in reality a dark form, covered in deep brown and green foliage.  That this painting emerged a silvery blue suggests the domain of the spirit, perhaps an interior but not visceral place.

I think this reverie I find myself in has deep roots in the human psyche but there is something else intruding now – what is it? Awe has always sat close to a tremor of fear, but this is different, something more like dread. To speak of unchanging presence in nature would seem to be an unparalleled luxury in the 21st Century when the dire predictions of climate change add up to no less than the potential apocalypse of our time. How much more contemplation can we afford?  What have we done?

On return to the studio I sort through hundreds of photographs, searching for the image that can be the vector for a complexity of response.  I am wary of being over prescriptive in ascribing meaning, as the beauty of visual images is that they can signify many things, or none of these, if a stilling of the mind is what one seeks through looking. But stillness depends upon a certain ease and once again, this is elusive.

The Pool V

The pool, a small and possibly stagnant body of water at the top of McKinnon Pass with its strange angles and cryptic scale, emerged as an emblem of unease, an abyss perhaps, rather than a source.  A possible metaphor for a sense of disturbance in our relationship to wilderness, situated as it is on top of the glorious McKinnon Pass on the Milford Track, with the Clinton Valley stretched out beyond on a clear day.

Historically a visual record of this view might signal many things, amongst them a celebration of the achievement of the human being who has conquered the terrain in order to arrive at such a glorious location. Nature is celebrated in all her beauty, and the gaze of the beholder is celebrated too.  The sense of certainty in this paradigm is slipping away from us as we collectively anticipate a shrinking and changing wilderness.

In this image, the great, epic, romantic view is shrouded in mist and rain so the little pool becomes the subject of our gaze, ambiguous in size, a strange shape with the threat of a barely visible drop just beyond waiting to claim the (not so triumphant) rain and wind soaked tramper.

It hovers in that place of uncertainty where the future is obscured, still beautiful, still inspiring contemplation as the landscape always has, but our gaze is no longer confident, either of nature’s indifferent grandeur or our eternal innocence.

The Pool IV


Within the pool series, this very minimal painting came late but arrived quickly, the pool slipping to the edge so that its right hand bank intersects the edge of the circular canvas, thus ambiguously entering the space of the viewer.

Water, and its hidden depths is a traditional metaphor for the unconscious.  The pool is not clear like the river in the valley below. There is no path to it.  The lie of the land around it is not inviting one to wade in for a dip.  But there is something compelling about it nonetheless.

Via the title of the miniatures in this series ‘Where the Waves Grow Sweet’ (below), I have made reference to the rich imaginary landscape of the Narnia books by CS Lewis.

Where the waves grow sweet II (with pool)

The pool echoes the notion of those that Polly and Digory encounter in The Wood Between the Worlds** as do the repetition of circles.  Each of the pools in the story leads to a different place, or rather into the imaginary Narnian world at different stages in its birth, life and dying.  Choosing and plunging into a pool involves an encounter with the unknown. As Lewis describes, it is much more tempting to just lie down and have a sleep.

And so the pool is also a signifier of the liminal, that place between places; between life and death, consciousness and all that lies below it.  And just beyond the pool I found the path, leading straight into the mist, a metaphor both for the desire to move forward and the uncertainty of the journey.

Night Sequence (detail with path)

Perhaps despite the precision of the science, we are in such a place in relation to nature, because it is so difficult to imagine it as other than so much greater than ourselves, and yet it is our collective activity, we are told, that has brought us here.  Awe, and its bedfellow fear, is re-inspired not so much by nature itself, but by the pace of change that has been unleashed. One slips from reverie with a guilty jerk, into the incoherent state of anticipating loss that weaves its way ever more tightly into our relationship to the other-than-human world.

Landscape painting now would seem to hover uneasily in this space, wary of irrelevant nostalgia, yet alive to our deep need for the experience of awe in nature, in other words, charged with the task of re-visioning right at the edge of what is known.

At the Edge of the Known World

Sarah Tomasetti, 2011

*   RIGBY Kate, Topographies of the Sacred. University of Virgina Press 2004

** LEWIS CS, The Magicians Nephew. Penguin Books 1963 (Chapter 3. The Wood Between the Worlds)

COMMENT on this post

3 Responses to “Awe in the Landscape – Painting Milford Sound”

  1. I think this is true. The place that one is entirely enveloped by in a particular moment, becomes the subject of a painting, which ultimately is an object that can be handled, moved, owned, wrapped up and put away. Sometimes I think there is an infantile impulse in this wish to create and own things that maybe we have to grow out of. Who was it that said Artists are the ones who are in denial about the fact of death?

    The image itself might be symbolic of an experience that one wishes to prolong, preserve or remember and then ones relationship to it indeed becomes intimate. I agree that Bachelard’s text The Poetics of Space meditates beautifully on this.

    The other thing I think is going on is that certain places and features of the landscape, when distilled into an image, have an archetypal significance at some psychological or spiritual level that makes them compelling. I think they can stand in for interior mind states that are not so easily found or symbolised through language.

    It’s hard to give an example without sounding trite….but I think of the places and times of day and night where the solid topography of a place dissolves into light or darkness. I think the light and the darkness, and the fact of that dissolving, resonates with us at another level of knowing. It could be about the oneness of things, or the dark interior places we fear or wish to dwell in, awe of the unknown – (there is death turning up again).

    Painting is an ideal medium for this territory – the process of finding and losing the image and maybe finding it again, is an extended search, not so much for the quality of the place though there might be this too, but for the point of interior resonance where the image seems to speak of something more than that. Late Turner comes to mind. As does Heidegger’s idea of the active “Nothing” that both elicits and eludes precise conceptualization. This gives a different meaning to the impulse to make an image. It is not so much about the object to be possessed, but a way of dwelling in, and pausing within, aspects of the mysterious.

  2. cardigan says:

    Is there something about painting as such that has the ability to make immense landscapes like these feel *intimate* without taking away from their immensity? Certainly these paintings by Sarah do, and I really feel I want to get in front of them and close up, and in.

    Perhaps the boundary of the painting allows us room (paradoxically) to make the images our own, taking them into ourselves, whereas being out in the landscape has the place taking us over and into it.

    Looking at this problem from a slightly different angle, I can sense that having the paintings as a group helps bring together a kind of intimacy that a single panorama on its own might not? Each of the less panoramic scenes has the intimate quality of a corner that Gaston Bachelard talks about in The Poetics of Space.

    But there is still, I think, something about the work of art in itself that conveys intimacy. Something about its “there it is for me” quality, or better, “there it is for Us”. Us is more inimate than me, isn’t it? (“Me” or “I” aren’t intimate at all.) Even out alone in a massive landscape isn’t there always an Us? And as for the landscape iself…? That’s another story. But wherever it is a sense of intimacy only adds to its immensity. And a bit of mist helps!

  3. alison says:

    Beautiful art Sarah. I can almost feel the mist on my skin.

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