Beyond Kitsch: The Art of the Sunset – TSTIME – 11/25/2022


Who doesn’t love a beautiful sunset? The dizzying and ephemeral display of changing colors and light is a constant source of fascination for humans.

And who among us hasn’t tried to capture that screen – and with it, hopefully, the emotions it evokes in us – with a camera, only to be disappointed that the colors on the screen aren’t even close to what our eyes see? or because our timing was bad and we missed the shutter at the perfect moment, while the colors of the sunset shifted by the second?

However, that doesn’t stop us from trying, as evidenced by the more than 300 million posts on Instagram using the hashtag “sunset.”

Museum curator Annett Reckert, of the Kunsthalle Bremen, is no different when it comes to enthusiastically pulling out her smartphone to snap some sunset snaps. And as an art historian, she realized that the popularity of the sunset motif as a mass phenomenon of amateur photography could not be matched by its representation in museums.

So she came up with the concept for a new exhibition called “Sunset: A Celebration of the Sinking Sun.”

The show explores the fascination of the sunset through some 130 works ranging from the romantic era to modern times.

But as Reckert cautiously points out, the exhibition is not an art-historical overview. Rather, she wants visitors to wonder what the motif does to them – why a beautiful sunset makes us want to grab our cameras and smartphones and try to capture what we see; why we regard some sunset images as art, while others are dismissed as kitsch; and even what these works of art have to tell us about pollution and climate change.

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A daily memorial of the dead

Recert has some theories about why we react so strongly to sunsets. “It’s about our mortality. Every day the sunset is a memento mori, a commemoration of death. You, too, go down. Another day has passed, and there may still be a residual fear for some that it won’t rise again ,” she told TSTIME.

Sunset as a Metaphor for Death: Anna Ancher, ‘Grief’ (1902)Image: Skagen Art Museums/Photo: Kirsten Bojstrup

An example of the theme of death in the exhibition is ‘Grief’, a 1902 work by Anna Ancher, in which two figures – an old woman in a cloak and a young, naked woman – kneel before a cross in an open landscape. against a setting sun.

Other works also evoke spiritual associations with sunsets, such as ‘Woman before a setting sun’, a small painting from 1818 by the German romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich.

As Reckert says, the image of a woman, seen from behind, gazing across the landscape at the rays of a setting sun, is often interpreted as symbolizing a religious experience.

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Seen from the back, a woman stands with her arms open to the landscape of rolling hills and an orange sunset before her.
A Sunset as a Religious Experience: Caspar David Friedrich, ‘Woman before a Setting Sun’, circa 1818Image: Museum Folkwang Essen/ARTOTHEK

Friedrich’s works have often sparked a debate about kitsch versus art, and of course the sunset motif is often assigned the kitsch label, from holiday postcards to decorations in budget motels.

Curator Reckert has deliberately avoided any attempt to categorize the works on display as high or low art, saying that the distinction is for the visitor to make.

She mentions a large work from 1871 by Johann Wilhelm Julius Köhnholz, which depicts a sunset in the Bavarian Alps. After being taken over by the Kunsthalle in 1892, it was harshly criticized by the press as kitsch and until now disappeared into the vault, where it has been placed alongside less controversial and well-known artists such as William Turner – but also more overtly commercial items, such as a collection of tourist postcards and works by Andy Warhol specially ordered for the Hotel Marquette in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

A landscape painting of a sunset in the Loisach Valley, Bavarian Alps, with dark mountains and a river in the foreground and mountains in the background lit by the setting sun
Criticized as kitsch: Johann Wilhelm Julius Köhnholz, ‘The Loisach Valley in the Bavarian Alps’ (1871)Image: Kunsthalle Bremen

Part of a sunset’s appeal is the way it changes the world for a short while. As the sun sets, the bright whites and yellows of the daytime sun, the glare and – depending on the place and season – the heat soften into an ever-changing array of colours: red and orange, pink and purple.

As Reckert points out, sunset is the only time you can look directly at the sun. It casts its beams at an oblique angle, illuminating clouds from the side and below, washing the world in a rosy glow that makes water shimmer silver and softens the world’s hard edges.

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Sunsets revealing pollution

That softening is famously depicted in Claude Monet’s 1904 “The Houses of Parliament, Sunset.”

But Reckert says the dreamy blur Monet captured so beautifully is actually an indication of just how sooty London’s sky was back then.

A painting of London's Houses of Parliament and their reflection in the river themes at sunset, with a hazy sky and an orange sun behind the buildings.
The Beauty of the Smog Sky: Claude Monet, ‘The Houses of Parliament, Sunset’ (1904)Image: Kunstmuseen Krefeld/Volker Döhne/ARTOTHEK

“Smog in the air makes for intense sunsets and that is of course a very deceptive thing,” she says, adding that that is also addressed in the exhibition. “There are quite a few works that are really about the climate aspect. And I think it’s also important at this time, when we’re surrounded by these images of doom and gloom, to look at the images with these critical considerations as well.”

A glimmer of hope

Along with these more serious considerations, Reckert hopes the exhibit will inspire some of the same fun as sunsets themselves, saying the timing isn’t coincidental.

“I really hope that in this winter, with all the bad news and the lights turned off in the cities, visitors can warm their souls and that the exhibition offers sensual pleasures and moments of realization.”

Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier


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