Blazing Heat: The Power of the Sun in Art

Olafur Eliasson, The Weather Project, 2003, image via Tate Modern
Olafur Eliasson, The Weather Project, 2003, image via Tate Modern

 

The sun – a blazing orb of fire that hovers beyond our reach - is vital to our very survival, nurturing life and dictating the structure of our daily lives. But there is also a magical and romantic quality to the sun as it lights up our universe with glistening iridescent rays, burning a hole in the sky or casting fiery light across the horizon and into the atmosphere beyond. Artists have tried for centuries to capture just some of the elusive wonder wrapped up in the sun, demonstrating how its inimitable golden light can transform the space around it, even just for the briefest moment in time.

 

Nun, Egyptian god of the waters of chaos, lifts the barque of the sun god Ra (represented by both the scarab and the orange sun disk) into the sky at the beginning of time. Image via Paul Humphries
Nun, Egyptian god of the waters of chaos, lifts the barque of the sun god Ra (represented by both the scarab and the orange sun disk) into the sky at the beginning of time. Image via Paul Humphries

 

Ancient Egyptian, Indo-European, and Meso-American cultures worshipped the sun as a powerful deity who bestowed life upon the cosmos with its unblinking, all-seeing eye, and its majestic rays often featured in their art forms. Ancient Japanese cultures also tied the sun with supernatural power, believing in Amaterasu as the mythical goddess of the sun. In fact, the sun was so vital to Japanese culture they even designated a crimson disc as their national flag, symbolising their role as the “Land of the Rising Sun.” Japanese prints through the centuries have featured the sun as a vibrant red or orange backdrop as a symbol of patriotism and pride.

Isoda Koryûsai woodblock print, Japanese Edo period, from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston
Isoda Koryûsai woodblock print, Japanese Edo period, from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston

 

In the Renaissance and Romanticist periods the sun became a powerful metaphor for the spiritual aura of the Catholic and Protestant god and the glory of heaven, as demonstrated in Joseph Mallord William Turner’s fiery vision of Flint Castle, 1838, where blinding light engulfs the entire scene, highlighting man’s insignificance in the face of the all-powerful god.

 

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Flint Castle, 1838, Wiki Art
Joseph Mallord William Turner, Flint Castle, 1838, Wiki Art

 

As knowledge about the solar system advanced in the wake of the Enlightenment artists became increasingly attracted to painting nature for its own sake, seeking out ways of celebrating the dazzling and fleeting beauty of sunlight and its fall across the natural land. One of the most famous paintings to demonstrate this was Claude Monet’s iconic Impression: Sunrise, 1872, so revolutionary in its expressive portrayal of sunlight on water that it spearheaded the launch of the Impressionist movement, and perhaps even modern art itself.


Claude Monet, Impression: Sunrise, 1872, Wiki Art
Claude Monet, Impression: Sunrise, 1872, Wiki Art

 

Representations of the sun became more inventive, expressive and abstract in the early 20th century. Van Gogh’s prismatic painting The Sower, 1888, captures sunset across a field in incandescent rays of glowing light, as dappled, broken brushstrokes create a mesmerising, shimmering heat-haze. More recently, Olafur Eliasson’s giant installation The Weather Project at Tate Modern in 2003 aimed to capture the feeling of flying close to the sun, drenching the entire gallery space in a misty and mysterious amber light. Eliasson’s eco-friendly project Little Sun, founded in 2012 is a further homage to the awesome power of sunlight, harnessing solar power and bringing it to some of the world’s poorest nations.

 

Van Gogh, The Sower, 1888, image via Artsy
Van Gogh, The Sower, 1888, image via Artsy

 

Rising Sun, Illus Prints
Rising Sun, Illus Prints | Buy This Prints >>>

 

Here at Illus prints, many of our images portray the glowing wonder of sunlight. Rising Sun makes a reference to ancient Egyptian art and Japanese prints with its strikingly bold, graphic shapes and pale amber colour scheme, while Sun suggests the feminine energy of the all-powerful Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu as female hands seem to harness and control the rays of the sun.

 

Sun, Illus prints
Sun, Illus prints | Buy This Print >>>

 

In contrast, Shine shares the dazzling, glistening brilliance of sunlight with Turner and Van Gogh, emphasising the radiant rays of light that colour our world, and continue to nourish the growth of new life.

 

Shine, Illus prints
Shine, Illus prints | Buy This Print >>>

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