The Disaster Series
In 1755 a massive earthquake struck Lisbon, Portugal. Shortly thereafter the entire port was drowned by a tsunami. What ruins remained of Lisbon after the earthquake and tsunami were then engulfed in an enormous fire leaving little left of the capital.
News of the Lisbon disaster quickly spread throughout Europe and had a profound effect on eighteenth century European culture. The philosophers of the day began a prolonged debate about man’s understanding of nature and established natural disasters as a metaphor of the sublime. Meanwhile artists began an aesthetic exploration of the sublime that reached its zenith in romantic landscape painting.
Though the Lisbon disaster occurred over two centuries ago, it is relevant to draw comparisons between it and the influence of recent catastrophes upon contemporary consciousness. The televised images of Hurricane Katrina, the Pakistan earthquake, African droughts, and the Southeast Asian tsunami can be interpreted as the aesthetic decedents of romantic landscape painting. Similar to the eighteenth century philosophers, current intellectuals are debating man’s relationship to nature in light of global warming and disaster response and prevention.
However, for all the re-runs of disaster documentaries on the Discovery Channel and all of the late night news debates, there is a scarcity of contemporary art that critiques our understanding of nature, catastrophes, and the sublime. Considering the mounting importance of addressing our future relationship with the natural world, I see a renewed need for visual art to examine these issues with contemporary media.