Chapter 5.Calm: Anxiety


The Seven Most Calming Works of Art in the World

Art has never been mere entertainment. Alongside philosophy and religion, it has been humanity’s chief source of consolation. It is what we should turn to in our very worst moments.

Here are seven of the most calming works of art ever produced.

1.  Hiroshi Sugimoto, The Atlantic Ocean, 1989

Because of the way our minds work, it is very hard for us to be anything other than immensely preoccupied with what is immediately close to us in time and space. But in the process, we tend to exaggerate the importance of certain frustrations that do not, in the grander scheme, merit quite so much agitation and despair. We are inveterately poor at retaining perspective. Art can help by carrying us out of present circumstances and reframing events against a more imposing or vast backdrop. 

This is a move being made by the Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto through his gigantic empty photographs of the Atlantic ocean in a variety of moods. What is most notable in these sublime scenes is that humanity is nowhere in the frame. We are afforded a glimpse of what the planet looked like before the first creatures emerged from the seas. Viewed against such an immemorial scene, the precise discontents of our times matter ever so slightly less. We regain composure not by being made to feel more important, but by being reminded of the miniscule and momentary nature of everyone and everything. 

As our eyes wander over the vast grey swell of the sea, we can immerse ourselves in an attitude of gratifying indifference to ourselves and everything about our laughably minor fate. The waters of time will close over us; and it will – thankfully – be as if we had never lived.

2. Ansel Adams, Aspens, Dawn, Autumn, 1937

Because death is always such a personal tragedy, because it can sometimes feel as if it was something we have been singled out for while others are still playing volleyball down at the gym in full health, it is helpful to be reminded that it will eventually prove a non-negotiable necessity for every living thing on the planet, from the Burgundy snail to the South American tapir, the dental hygienist to the genius-level left side hitter.

There can be consolation in contemplating the presence of death in species and life forms other than our own – just to enforce the message of the ubiquity of the end. 

In Ansel Adams’s photograph, a row of aspens have been surprised by the photographer’s light and stand out as strands of silver against the blackness of night. The mood is sombre, but elegant. There is a consoling message within the artistry that can appease our raw grief and anxiety about our mortality and the fleetingness of time. The image invites us to see ourselves as part of the mesmerising spectacle of nature. Nature’s rules apply to us as much as they do to the trees of the forest. It’s not personal. The photograph is a reframing device: it invites us to think of our own deaths as having a natural order that has nothing to do with individual justice. The photograph tries to take the personal sting out of what is happening to us.

Leaves always wither and fall. Autumn necessarily follows from spring and summer. Encountering this spectacle in art, we are invited to reframe our thoughts about mortality in the broad purview of nature: nature’s sequences apply to us as much as they do to plants and trees. Time moves forward relentlessly. The seasons pass – and we hasten towards old age, death and oblivion. The image takes these awkward truths and, through its technical skills, lends them a redemptive dignity and grandeur. 

3. Ludolf Bakhuysen, Warships in a Heavy Storm, 1695

In the 17th century, the Dutch developed a tradition of painting that depicted ships in violent storms. These works, which hung in private homes and in municipal buildings around the Dutch republic, were not mere decoration. They had an explicitly therapeutic purpose to them: they were delivering a moral to their viewers, who lived in a nation critically dependent on maritime trade,  about confidence in seafaring and life more broadly. The sight of a tall sailing ship being tossed to a twenty degree angle in a rough sea looks – to an inexperienced person – like a catastrophe. But there are many situations that look and feel much more dangerous than they really are, especially when the crew is prepared and the ship internally sound. 

The Dutch painter Ludolf Bakhuysen’s Warships in a Heavy Storm looks chaotic in the extreme: how could they possibly survive? But the ships were well-designed for just such situations. Their hulls had been minutely adapted through long experience to withstand the tempests of the northern oceans. The crews practiced again and again the manoeuvers that could keep such their vessels safe: they knew about taking down sails at speed and ensuring that the wind would not shred the mast. They understood about shifting cargo in the hull, tacking to the left and then abruptly to the right, and pumping out water from the inner chambers. They knew to remain coolly scientific in responding to the storm’s wilful frantic motions. The picture pays homage to decades of planning and experience. Bakhuysen wanted us to feel proud of humanity’s resilience in the face of apparently dreadful challenges. His painting enthuses us with the message that we can all cope far better than we think; what appears immensely threatening may be highly survivable.

What is true of storms in the North Sea may be no less true of the turmoils in our lives. The storms will die down, we will be battered, a few things will be ripped, but we will eventually return to safer shores. 

4. Claude Monet, Poppies, 1873

Much to the consternation of sophisticated people, a great deal of popular enthusiasm is directed at works of art that are distinctly cheerful: meadows in spring, the shade of trees on hot summer days, pastoral landscapes, and smiling children.

The highest selling postcard of art in France is Poppies by Claude Monet.

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Sophisticated people tend to scorn. They are afraid that such enthusiasms might be evidence of a failure to acknowledge or understand the awful dimensions of the world. But there is another way to interpret this taste: that it doesn’t arise from an unfamiliarity with suffering, but from an all too close and pervasive involvement with it – from which we are impelled occasionally to seek relief if we are not to fall into despair and self-disgust. Far from naivety, it is precisely the background of suffering that lends an intensity and dignity to our engagement with this work of art. Claude Monet hasn’t just made a pretty picture; he has bottled hope.

5. Caspar David Friedrich, Rocky Reef on the Sea Shore, 1825

Caspar David Friedrich shows us a striking, jagged rock formation, a spare stretch of coast, the bright horizon, far away clouds and a pale sky to induce us into a mood. We might imagine walking in the pre-dawn, after a sleepless night, on the bleak headland, away from human company, alone with the basic forces of nature. 

The picture does not refer directly to the stresses and tribulations of our day to day lives. Its function is to give us access to a state of mind in which we are acutely conscious of the largeness of time and space. The work is sombre, rather than sad; calm, but not despairing. And in that condition of mind – that state of soul, to put it more romantically – we are left, as so often with works of art, better equipped to deal with with the intense, intractable and particular griefs that lie before us. 

6. Anonymous, Kintsugi Bowl, 1990

The Japanese have an artistic tradition, known as kintsugi, wherein the broken pieces of an accidentally-smashed pot are carefully picked up, reassembled and then glued together with lacquer inflected with a luxuriant gold powder – to create a beautiful ode to the art of repair. In kintsugi, there is no attempt to disguise the damage, the point is to render the fault-lines obvious and elegant. The precious veins of gold are there to emphasise that things falling apart isn’t unexpected or panic-inducing: it creates an opportunity for us to mend – and mend redemptively.

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7. Richard Serra, Fernando Pessoa, 2007-8

We’re often intensely lonely in our suffering. We’re not only sad, we believe we’re the only ones to be so. But we are, in reality, all on the edge of despair. We should learn to suffer with less of a sense of persecution or an impression that we have unfairly been singled out for punishment.

‘Fernando Pessoa’ is a beautifully dark monumental work by Richard Serra, named after a Portuguese poet with a turn for lamentation (as he wrote: ‘Oh salty sea / how much of your salt is tears from Portugal.’).

The work does not deny our sorrows, it does not tell us to cheer up or point us in a brighter direction (what people often do when we tell them our troubles). The large scale and monumental character of this intensely sombre sculpture implicitly declares the normality and universality of grief. It is confident that we will recognise and respond to the legitimate place of solemn emotions in an ordinary life. Rather than leaving us alone with our darker moods, the work proclaims them as central features of life. In its stark gravity, like many of the greatest works of art, Serra’s ‘Fernando Pessoa’ creates a dignified home for sorrow.

Too many books have been written trying to explain what art might be for. In moments of great crisis, the answer is only too obvious: art is there to help keep us alive.

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