The Sapphic Sublime of Frederick Sommer

Timberlake, John. 2012. The Sapphic Sublime of Frederick Sommer. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

Text (Doctoral Thesis)

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The central focus of my thesis is the aesthetics of the sublime in the work of Frederick Sommer (1905-1999), beginning with, but extending beyond, an encounter with Sommer’s Arizona landscape photography of the World War II period. Sommer’s oeuvre is notable for its cross disciplinary character, with no single element – photography, collage or drawing (this latter could as easily be described as painting) accorded primacy, and the thesis acknowledges this aspect as central to reading both the works individually and Sommer’s practice collectively. The multifarious aspect of Sommer’s practice has resonances with my own artistic concerns in relation to photography, drawing, montage and landscape.

Taking Sommer’s desert floor photographs of 1940-45 as a starting point, I problematise the Kant-derived conceptions of the sublime in what is, to date, the most prominent monograph commentary on Sommer. I argue that the radical nature of Sommer’s work of this period does not conform to the descriptions offered by Kant, and, moreover, that what is significant about the works of this period are the formal challenges to the figure/ground dyadic relationships associated with depictions of the Kantian sublime. The thesis goes on to explore the sublime affect in Sommer’s oeuvre, as a whole, and I discuss the affective tropes of fragmentation and immersion that are constitutive of it. Reviewing some of the writing on Sommer’s work to date, the thesis draws upon a close reading of Sommer’s photographic prints and technique in the context of his wider practice, alongside work done over the past four decades in Literature, Women’s Studies, Lesbian and Gay Studies and Classical Studies, to propose that a model of the Sapphic Sublime as appropriate to Sommer’s work of this period. To this end, throughout the thesis and my reading of Sommer, I draw upon theories pertaining to literature as much as visual art.

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Thesis (Doctoral)


theories of the sublime; landscape; photography; collage and montage; drawing, frederick sommer; sappho of lesbos; C20th century north american art; melanie klein.

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19 September 2012

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Date Deposited:

22 Apr 2013 12:54

Last Modified:

08 Sep 2022 08:35


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