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Towards an Aesthetics of Mountains…




Mountains… depicted often. As part of a tradition their forms dominate the history of Chinese and Far-eastern landscape painting, feature in 18thc European art, and are taken to hyperbolic excess in paintings of the Romantic period (and beyond as in the case of Cezanne and Mt. Saint Victoire in Southern France). What elements of their form enchant us so? What do they symbolize, indicate, represent? And what of their relationship with what we cannot see, with the invisible, the Sublime, the Outside, the ‘other places’ or Other that our beliefs rely upon for their impossible guarantee? Whether their presence is registered directly, or found reproduced in images, sculpture or mimicked in architecture or ornamental gardens and parks, the impact of mountains on the human imagination has accompanied the evolution of human culture, its religion and its art. But despite the many centuries of their depiction in painting, mountains are perhaps best represented in photography - and black and white photography at that. (See, among others, Ansell Adams  Sebastiao Salgado, Feng Jianguo). Leading to the question: What special feature does black and white photography possess that would lend itself to the evoking of the experience of mountains, the emotions they summon, their fascination, their understanding and their aesthetics?


Form. Overall triangular (or, more typically, rhomboid). A ‘feature’; a figure on a ground, something erupting, dominating, centering and filling, facing one, calling for attention, focusing landscape (a union with its background, in union with its background, with its surround). A surround that we perceive due to the central focus of the mountain itself (or the particular peak that we choose to focus upon, as ‘centre-stage’). A surround therefore unified, brought into being by the presence of the central feature, the focal point in the cross hairs of the diagonal of our frontal vision (or screen of our visual sense, the human visual field, source of our visual culture). Opposite, yet complementary to the sense of a ‘room’ in Nature (enclosing, we within, or peering into, 360, if only in implication, a ‘second skin’ or room of self-consciousness, so lending itself to personification and genius loci, the forging of place from space, as do mountains, but in different, less intimate, way). Mountains are solid, rising, erupting (so opposite in perception, as in geological implication, to lakes, with their falling depth, supporting a rising empty space and between, the reflection of the sky and solid surround, circular, or, in perspective, the form of an ellipsis – also subject to genius loci, ‘home’ of water sprites and dragons). Mountains too may be the home of beasts, but more likely of gods, their, ‘seat’, site of heaven or its cultural avatars. Mountains are a geographical, geological event… again ‘a feature’, what we perceive as visually dominant, most important, most present… relegating the rest to back ground status. So often standalone, as in the case of any phenomenological feature; but usually part of a chain, cumulating ridges, or accompanying peaks, and in various jagged combinations. In context, escorted by somewhat tamer foothills… (a less present foreground).


From attracting attention - focusing on a feature - to redirecting, changing the direction of stare, eyes, even face and head, certainly thought and feeling… and so meaning, symbolism, connotation; the mountain as metaphor (its second meaning is found not only in its presence, but in the absence it champions, in its deictics, its focusing and pointing – beyond itself). A pointing, indication or index, which points upward to a sublime deixis. An invisible, ineffable, infinite end… So incarnating ‘hypsosis’, the concept designed to express the sense of pointing upwards, the ‘eye-leading’’ found in the construction of many Classical Greek temples and their illusionism, the tapering and inward angle of the pillars, leading to the tapering effect of the entire building. An effect spectacularly present (definitive of an architectural style) in the soaring effect of Gothic cathedrals (inside as well as out).


Visible/invisible. So from a visible feature, the very centre of a landscape, a ‘view’, to the focusing of our thoughts ‘upwards’, to the pointing upwards, to… the invisible – to something, or somewhere, some place, we cannot see. The rhetoric employed in this sense, this illusion which is not an illusion, because nothing is seen, is the rhetoric of eternity; of putting important, sacred, truly foundational things, ‘outside’. And when the top of the mountain is veiled, when its ‘face’ is veiled, by clouds or mists… or by a concealing, blinding, coating of snow… then we have the union of eye-leading and mystery… The tip of the index finger is itself hidden, but the directionality is unmistakable. The pointing remains, indicating a place (non-place) beyond the clouds… Beyond the mere sub-lunary, the earth-bound, beyond everyday time and space. Found, then, an elsewhere to ‘ground’ our desire for the eternal, sacred and unquestionable, unshakable, faith. A ‘foundation’ put ‘outside’; the most fundamental of human a priori maneuvers; the most intangible and yet the most solid of starting points; But the actual solid foundation on which this effect is built (the rock, the mountain) is as nothing to what is built upon it; most dependable because beyond question… beyond tangibility, beyond the senses, beyond perception… Beyond history, beyond mutability… beyond change. It is as if the everlastingness which is one of the key impressions and key to the rhetorical force of mountains (untrue, geologically speaking they in the process of being degraded into tame, low and rounded, hills by the weather they are exposed to) was projected into a realm outside of history, of time, so eternal, ever present and simultaneously, non-present, so suspiciously like our sense of time, of human temporality as based upon an inescapable sense of being in the present (with memory and projection as windows opening on to the past and future), the eternal present; generalized out into an immorality our being in the present does not possess, ‘eternity’ (source also of our sense of universals, so necessary to logic, mathematics and artificial, axiomatised, languages).


Content. Mountains and their meaning. Most especially their sacred meanings (as found in many cultures across the world). This is a matter of history and cultural associations. Mountains in most cultures do not only stand in for an approach to the heavens, but also for Nature. So a logical continuation, or better, appropriation, of pagan or tribal nature worship into the religions that arose at the time of the Iron Age and progressed from the ancient civilisations into the epoch of feudalism that followed – in these times, as in those of early capitalism that followed, often referred to as ‘Imperialism’, religion was spread by the sword rather more than by proselytization and example. In China, sacred mountains feature throughout its long history, most especially in Tibet and Tibetan regions (all mountainous) where the local variant of Buddhism is happy to include mountains as key sacred sites; similar religious sentiments and associations are found in Japan, Vietnam and generally throughout Southeast Asia (in combination with Daoism and Buddhism and now with the cult of mountains in travel and tourism). The history of Christianity, whilst destructive of local beliefs and rituals, retained enough respect for mountains for would be hermits and self-purifiers to go there for mortification and meditation just as would an eastern seeker after wisdom. In mimesis, in the mimicry or mountains; the copying of the imposing structure or approach to the heavens found in the architecture of pyramids and sacrificial offering altars (as found in pre-Columbian American civilisations, Chinese and neighbouring civilisations and ancient Semitic civilisations of the Mediterranean and Middle East, most notably in Egypt). In the modern era we find the cult of mountains surviving as, or continuing into the Romantic religious sensibility of the late 18th and 19th centuries (one which also helped to establish many national parks). So mountains are also found in their ‘specialness’ (when not part of an established or previous religion) as in Europe and America, serving as a kind of religion after religion, grounding religious sensibility in an age of reason and science and technological advance, as well as key part of the general reaction to urbanisation and industrialization and their attendant ills. In turn triggering the survival or folkloric re-awakening of many myths and legends - some perhaps surviving from previous tribal or pagan beliefs. So our modern day cultural imagining of mountains and their landscapes (lakes, lochs, sea lochs and sea coasts) involve accumulated meanings inherited from the past and becoming associated with modern day cults of Nature, dating from Romanticism (although ‘Nature First’ philosophies date back at least to the Iron age or first cities of Classical civilizations and philosophers East and West). Indeed found in all civilisations as part of a largely rhetorical reaction or counterpoint to the evolution of urban life, so producing what the West has come to call the Myth of Pastoral (the shepherds have it best), and in the East a sensibility which is often based upon Daoism or a Buddhism fused with local (tribal) religious traditions. In both cases now an integral part of the tourist industry and the ideologies that sustain it.


And so we arrive at our present day neo-Romanticism… (exemplified in the myths of the tourist industry, the Sunday supplement or colour magazine exoticism of tribal minorities (usually darker skinned) and the rapid commercialisation of previously hard to access areas of the globe (mountain areas – these are now mainly accessible, and prey to mass tourism, which transforms the very landscape the advertiser’s promised, or which we promised to ourselves…). Key aspect of the globalisation of tourism. Indeed modern mass tourism features the mobilisation of a putative ‘secularised’ sacred desire (a continuation of the Romantic Sublime, complementing our other foci of desire, sexual attraction and recognition or belonging – this latter now largely appropriated by the fashion industry and, less harmlessly, various modern communitarianisms). This hunger for the sacred, or enchantment, in the modern world is part and parcel of the various modern ‘Nature First’, ideologies that augment or underpin our more obvious political or collective belief systems. Useful, when allied to the consciousness of environmentalism and the preservation of landscapes and the resistance to pollution or the ugly forms of urbanization: but also downright misleading, because succoring beliefs based upon the notion of authenticity, the essential ‘natural’ self, extending to group identity (who is more authentic?), so potentially excluding and scape-goating, and because of finding a base in genetics (or is it the over-generalised meaning of genetics that finds its base and inspiration in this ideology… Nature now defined as biology, as our genes, with genetics as the new, since the 1970s, essentialism). So readable as dictating much cultural life… or ‘ought to’ because real and … ‘natural’.


What is closest to Nature? This is the question posed? With Nature of course as the unquestioned centre of greatest good, authenticity, true being, etc…  Answers, ‘natural’ areas, mountains and peoples, (whence both now part of the mass tourist industry) our hidden link to real Nature… (in a world where nothing is untouched by human culture, nothing unaltered – from the vanishing of glaciers to the pollution in the depths of our oceans)…


Mountains too are one answer, in part because of their apparent lack of utility and difficulty of exploitation: if we discount their historical use as a base or focus for faith (home to hermits and saints, temples, monasteries and shrines), and now their appropriation as tourist attractions,  different kind of focus, with economics as the key driver (and the ideology of travel/tourism as attractor of desire), with the concomitant transformation of the their surroundings and peoples, their life styles and cultures: the very lifestyles and cultures once thought to be most ‘authentic’ and part of the ‘draw’ of such regions; now functioning as tourist accessories, past of the tourist infrastructure… 


Mass tourism and the spread of the limit or rim, its outwards moving edge, as the seekers of authenticity push out the margins, destroying what they seek…


(And what of the means of expression, support for the form and content of the expression…? We find this in our, largely unwitting, appropriation of the landscape, of its colours, their hues and intensities, given us by the light that is reflected from the object of expression, by the index or image that is the result of our perception, of our eye that is the organ of perception, and our memory, that is its semantic background, the web of connections waiting to be made every time we perceive something, ‘out there’… and giving significance. Giving meaning to form and so our actually experienced content - what we see and its associations….)


Form and content may also be found together in the workings of colour as perhaps the key means of expression (colour as significant form). And not only the contrast of the range of colour; but its very presence and absence. The difference of colour and no colour! Mountains are generally experienced as not only exhibiting a restricted palette of bleached greys and black scars (approaching that of night vision), but a palette which is, in turn, and by contrast, en-framed by a world of colour; by blue skies and green forests, mountain pastures or grass lands. The mountains themselves, as they are found emerging from this green surround, are the grey of granite and other stone, and the black of the water and ice-lead dis-colouration of the natural colours of stone - dramatically augmented by the presence of snow and shadows. So it is that the mountains we see are en-framed by a key optical difference, one found in our switch from colour vision at night, but also existing as the key opposite modality to colour vision itself, the world in colour in opposition to the world in black and white. Worlds carrying a mass of meanings that may (often in contradiction) be found together, a frame of one kind of visual modality, one kind of seeing - one framing its opposite. Like a quotation or collage; a grey gem set in a frame full of colour or a contrasting surround.


The clouds too that often sit, wreathe, or completely obscure the mountains that are the objects of our visual desire, are white, grey and black, part of the mystique, part of differential difference of the mountain and its setting. Subject to transfiguration at dawn and the onset of evening. The colours which bring a glow to the skyline before plunging it into the black and silver of night, and the absent presence of the silhouette.


Black and white in themselves constitute a significant contrast, exceeding perhaps the contrasts possible in the uses of colour alone, as well as being able together to create a significant, most obvious, contrast when in the context of a colour landscape. But what of the actual colours found in mountain landscapes? What of the ‘original’ colours of the rock, or stone strata, of which the mountain is made, (yellow, green, more rarely, red etc…). The colours of lichens and other hardy growths? And, what of, most significantly, in the human imagination, in our art and poetry, the ‘borrowed’ colours of sunset and sunrise. Yet, with the day-long reflection of the sun, especially if covered with or partially, topped with snow, then mountains are, in contradistinction to what lies around them, found to be in black and white… And in the (twice) reflected glow of the moon black and white intensify onto pitch and silver. Contrast is differential; whatever other hues may be found in certain rocks or places and at certain times of day, it is black and white and colour that dominate in this contrast… and in our desire for the meanings, triggered by this contrast - this setting apart in a setting. This monochrome mass arising from, held within, a chromatic surround.


Just so the black, white and grey of the black and white photograph in its natural context of a world of colour.


Just so black and white photography…


Once removed, unnatural, uncanny, semi-present yet one key visual source of the rhetoric of eternity, appearing as if ancient or aged, beyond age, the past extended into eternity… So just like some of the modes of rhetoric or genre influencing aspects of black and white photography… All based on the human psyche’s response to the lack of colour, the colour of reality, that is, in colour, and which has now strangely gone missing, and, even more strangely, found to be, not a defect, but a bonus, one that adds rather than detracts meanings – one that attracts meaningsAttracts meaning. Witness even the effect of the bleaching and darkening of the onset of evening in the absence of artificial light and the effect this has in those who are witness to this daily, but often invisible, occurrence (effects previously found in charcoal and chalk, pencil sketch and pre-eminently, in the most famous -if not necessarily historically most representative- of Chinese art genres, that of shuimo, or ink wash painting… with its key genre, shanshui, the landscape of mountains and waters, executed in black ink on white rice paper). Traditions now all feeding, along with other art historical traditions to be sure, into modern photography - and most notably into black and white photography.


Physical bulk or presence of stone, towering mass of rock, a presence denied by a lack of colour (in unnatural contrast to the surrounding natural landscape and sky). Presence affirmed by a double refocus of human imagining. Repository and magnet for our desire of the sacred, and its conduit into the heavens. Conduit reversed as taking place entirely in our minds. Awaiting a trigger preprogrammed by our optical sense, field of vision, and its inseparable suture with our human desire for something to value, the search for sacrality.


















Copyright Peter Nesteruk, 2015