New Romantics: Sophia Szilagyi

Australian Scholarly Publishing PTY LYD, North Melbourne, 2011

Something is happening in Australian art today. We are witnessing the resurgence of ideas that took root centuries ago - a return to passion in art; a return to atmosphere and awe.

Historians call it Romanticism; a disposition for melancholic yearning, for communion with nature, for the sublime. Australian artists, in countless numbers, are engaging with these themes again today.

Through the work of thirty-six contemporary practitioners, Simon Gregg seeks to understand a paradigm shift that is shaping the future course of Australian Art.

New Romantics is rich in exclusive interviews with, and first-hand accounts by, the leading artists of this generation, each of whom represent a unique aspect of an extraordinary spectacle of art.

Simon Gregg is a curator and art historian specialising in colonial and contemporary Australian art. His genre- busting exhibitions and published works traverse fields as diverse as social and architectural history, contemporary art and popular culture.

Currently Curator of the Gippsland Art Gallery, Sale, he was previously Senior Curator of Melbourne’s City Museum and he has worked for major museums and galleries throughout Victoria. New Romantics is his first full-length book.
Sophia Szilagyi creates composite images to unerring effects, making use of photographs, film stills and computer scans of paintings. Szilagyi works within the late nineteenth entry tradition of the sublime as a source of silence, stillness and mystical wonder, but imbues this with a startling sense of the spectral. Seeking out moonlit forests, lakes, rivers and oceans, Szilagyi heightens the strangeness in her scenes by laying further images over the top - but in a barely detectable way, so as to suggest a oneness in the image. Our beliefs in the photographs is challenged, but with a basis that is still empirically plausible, we can accept the occurrence of these supernatural spectacles.

Szilagyi does not consider herself to be working within the Romantic canon, and says that ‘I am only informed by historical precedents in the sense that the art by previous artists that I have seen has lodged in my subconscious, and it influences me from there’. It’s difficult for me to pinpoint what exactly moves me or inspires me to make art. I’m not an intellectual or conceptual artist. To make art, I look to my own feelings and emotions. Where I start is simply with the way I feel, and the things that I ask myself. And for me, that suggests a sense of mystery, uncertainly, unknowing, searching, and fear. But I think of these as quite ordinary sensations, rather than profound ones. However, I can also see that the final resulting work is not necessarily ordinary, in fact it unusually isn’t. And I think artwork does need an element of the non-ordinary to reach an audience’.

In working with multiple layers of imagery (she considers herself a ‘printmaker’ rather than a ‘photographer’), Szilagyi reconciles our two experiences of sublimity: Friedrich’s meditative transcendence and Turner’s ferocious onslaught of nature, encapsulated within Kant’s division of the ‘mathematical’ sublime and the ‘dynamical’ sublime. There is a deeply irrational logic at work within Szilagyi’s magisterial presentations, in which we elect the presence of forests floating upwards into the sky, unearthly luminosities radiating through trees, and strange, inexplicable shapes moving through bodies of water. The initial sensation of calm is ruptured by a disconcerting awareness that all is not right.

Szilagyi cleverly fuses particular aspects of multiple images to fashion a new pictorial idiom through which, like the Romantics before her, she expressed supernatural experience through natural means. While not working consciously with the notion of the sublime, she admits that his may be a side-effect of her working methods:

‘It has never been my primary intention to make artworks that are ‘sublime’ but in trying to get across my ideas they may turn out that way without my intention. I do aim for my work to be beautiful, but also with an underlying uncertainty about this beauty somewhere in the work. I am often intuitively drawn to depict a sense of vastness of space, or vastness of darkness. Vastness has the feeling of surrounding the viewer. I like the idea of the viewer being caught inside these landscapes’.

In seeking to place the viewer ‘inside’ her landscapes that are characterised by ‘vastness’, Szilagyi describes exactly the sensation imparted by much of Friedrich’s and Turner’s Romantic work. Central to Szilagyi’s project is an unfulfillable yearning for experiences beyond rational comprehension and at the threshold of memory, which often leads to this ‘uncertainty’. There is a tantalising sense of familiarity, which she at once debases by corrupting the rational logic of what we see.

Szilagyi is symptomatic of a shift towards visual motifs that demonstrate the failure of memory to reconcile with experience, which are characterising much more contemporary Australian art. In the absence of an adequate cultural memory from which to draw, we submerge into our own unconscious abyss - the residue of memory and the fragments by which we recall it. Here, the Romantic sublime becomes a potent medium in which to express the antipodean condition where the artwork, as noted by Schelling in 1800, is to be regarded ‘not as a thing but through which the sensible is reunited with the transcendental’. The embrace of the memory in ruin and the rupture between past and present has the potential to yield the most transcendental of harvests - a pronounced disclosure of unconscious space that conforms to Friedrich’s call that ‘A waiter should not merely paint what he sees in front of him, he ought to paint what he sees within himself’.

Friedrich’s assertion is reflected in the very title of Szilagyi’s work The Shutting Of The Eye, in which we observe a solemn forest of needle-thin pines reaching for the heavens. Our vantage point prevents us from ascertaining the tops of the trees, and so we experience an immersive enclosure within the folds of forestry. Our only point of connection beyond the meshing of dense foliage is with the haunting moonlight that filters through, but brings with it a cloud of tangible luminosity. In her title, Szilagyi suggests the presence of phenomena that becomes apparent only with eyes closed, and indeed, the sensation of this light is unlike anything we would encounter in reality.

Elsewhere Szilagyi destabilises our normal visual approach by her use of unsettling pictorial conventions. Vision II, as the titled suggests, presents a visionary spectacle of light, breaking out from a huddle of surreal dark clouds. The light is carried by an ocean whose colour seems at odds with the sky, and what further unsettles the image is the abrupt angle of the ocean’s horizon line, which is titling dramatically downward to the left. This simple effect enforces a sense of divine sublimity at work - of forces beyond our ability to comprehend. In creating her images, Szilagyi is guided entirely by her ‘feelings’, and the way in which they trigger memories:

‘I generally start work with a photo of a place; I remember how it made me feel to be there, and those feelings or thoughts are what I start trying to create on the computer. On one level it’s an image of a place, on another level it’s an attempt to make visible my feelings and thoughts about that place. Sometimes the feeling I get from the place triggers memories of films and paintings, which I might then blend in to the image, if it seems appropriate. These are usually landscape based painting, photography or film, chosen intuitively. After I have begun working, the specific ideas that I began with go out of my head, and the actual work takes over and I follow what’s going to make that image right’.

Szilagyi’s practice, as she tells us, is guided by instinct and feeling, and results in what we might best call ‘emotionscapes’ rather than simply ‘landscapes’. Like the Romantics before her, she attempts to relay a sense of inner truth, conveyed through the exterior, visual world. Representative of this approach is A Matter of The Skies, which suggests that a heavenly intervention is in progress in the skies above a forest. Th effect is enhanced by the natural perspective, in which the trees recede into the distance from the picture’s left edge, only to return at the picture’s right, so creating an uneasy sense that the forest is closing in around us. Szilagyi, here, recalls Friedrich’s The Large Enclosure Near Dresden (c.1832), where the emotional intensity of the artist’s vision seems to have physically exaggerated the curvature of the Earth.

Present throughout Szilagyi’s output is a looming field of darkness, symbolic perhaps of the omnipresence of death. The distant ship on the horizon of Furthest Shinning is being pursued by the long fingers of black cloud, creeping beneath the surface of the ocean. As with other artists we have studied here, Szilagyi’s approach to the glacial is characterised by the sheer superiority of the forces of nature over humankind. Place and time are rendered suspect, and we are presented with the images and ideas of impossible magnitude.

Explore more about Greg Wood, who also features in the book - New Romantics, Darkness and Light in Australian Art by Simon Gregg. 
July 15, 2022