Calm

Seven Works of Art From Around the World Known for Their Calming Properties

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.