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The Lure of the Ocean

Eugène-Louis Boudin The Beach at Trouville - The Empress Eugenie, 1863 Oil on wood Glasgow City Council (Museums)

Photo © Glasgow City Council (Museums)

September 2007

As two exhibitions in the UK currently explore, the power of the sea to inform developments in art has persisted vigorously through time. Impressionists by the Sea, at the Royal Academy of Arts, London (to 30 September), which then travels to the Phillips Collection, Washington DC (20 October – 13 January 08) focuses on how the Impressionists captured the transient effects of weather and light on the coastline in the mid to late nineteenth century. One hundred years later California rocked to the sounds of Brian Wilson, the creative force behind The Beach Boys, now the subject of an exhibition at Tate St Ives, Cornwall (to 23 September) aptly entitled If Everybody had an Ocean.

Having lived by the sea for many years, I too became drawn to its unpredictable behaviour; its wild omnipresence becomes embedded in the psyche, and its innate dualism keeps one’s senses acutely tuned. Fascination with the ocean as a relentless force in our consciousness has therefore understandably recurred throughout art history: Its natural drama has inspired moral and religious masterpieces; it has been the site of sacrifice and heroism, and ultimately the rise and fall of nations. The ancient Greeks utilised sea imagery in art, which can be traced back to 1600 BC, and in the ninth to eleventh centuries AD, Scandinavian civilisations demonstrated their reverence for the ocean through woodcarvings on their ships. An early influence for French painting of the 1830s-40s were the stormy seascapes of the seventeenth-century Dutch painters, who worked in a country under continual threat from flooding, and in nineteenth-century Japanese woodblock art, an important source of inspiration for the Impressionists, the ocean’s power featured in the unforgettable images of Hokusai.

By the late nineteenth century artists were travelling between North America, Scandinavia, Central Europe and the British Isles, and this internationalism, or pursuit of the ‘other’, became the ultimate modern experience. Most importantly, the railways had opened access to the channel coast, and Parisians consequently flocked to the growing number of resorts. Impressionism, with its anti-academic approach and interest in modern life, was a movement immediately attracted to this new kind of existence. Identification with a specific place, or particular way of life, was responsible for the creation of many symbolically idealised communities, constructed through mans’ inherent myth-making, which later became an important facet in the development of twentieth-century modernism. Early glimpses of this can be seen in Impressionists by the Sea at the Royal Academy of Arts, which includes the work of Gustave Courbet, Charles François Daubigny, Eugène Louis Gabriel Isabey, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet and Pierre Auguste Renoir. The sea, as a subject, offered an enticing opportunity to abandon tonal modelling and give emphasis to the separation of coloured marks, with the brushstroke itself gaining in independence. Billowing clouds, frothing waves, wind-tugged sails and dappled light all offered the opportunity for spontaneous execution, satisfying the Impressionist’s quest in developing a direct response to nature.

Claude Monet The Regatta at Sainte-Adresse, 1867 O/C

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of William Church Osborn, 1951 (51.30.4)

Photo © 1980 The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In contrast, If Everybody had an Ocean utilises Brian Wilson’s music as a prism through which to view developments in art and southern California from the 1960s. This unusual relationship between music, art and cultural myth is appropriately presented at Tate St Ives, a gallery situated by the sea in Cornwall, in an area imbued with a particularly distinct artistic heritage; the home of British modernism. This three-part exhibition explores the interplay between avant-garde art and popular culture in relation to California as a mythical youth-obsessed utopia; it then evolves to multi-coloured abstractions that share an affinity with Wilson’s kaleidoscopic studio productions, and lastly explores the dichotomy that exists between the popular image of The Beach Boys and Wilson’s troubled inner world, also focusing on the loss of innocence at the close of that revolutionary decade. However, The Beach Boys were not part of the 1960s art world; rather the exhibition reveals a counterfactual history of hidden connections between art and music, exploring the parallel between the sound of the Beach Boys and the art of southern California, and consequently British pop artists; consumers of the American dream. If Everybody had an Ocean is cleverly interjected with Wilson’s music and includes the work of Peter Blake, John Cage, Vija Celmins, Thomas Demand, Liam Gillick, Bridget Riley, Ed Ruscha and Fred Tomaselli.

Both exhibitions, in a sense, offer nostalgic visions of the past, focusing on the coastal location as the creation of a kind of imagined utopia, which has the power to bind a group together through their shared interests and hedonistic activities. However, in reality the sea is a far from ambient force. Although it can offer immense pleasure, particularly as portrayed in the work of the Impressionists, its potential for devastation is a force not to be ignored. In the twenty first century the power of the ocean continues to burst into our consciousness, but this time as a hostile force, as tidal waves and floods destroy lives and property. One cannot help but reflect on a more sinister interpretation of its power; that being the narrative of Noah’s Ark which, according to the Book of Genesis, began with the higher orders observing mans’ destructive behaviour, thereby deciding to flood the earth, destroying life in the process; in other words, water used to devastating effect to express a state of wrath. This narrative lives on as an eternal symbol of survival, perfectly illustrating mans’ precarious smallness against the elements of nature, and it is ultimately this battle, both psychological and actual, that continues to manifest itself as a challenge to be conquered in the work of artists.

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