Can the world do without fish? In 2018 humans consumed a total of 156.4 million tonnes (live weight) of fish, according to The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2020 published by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN. The following is a tribute to God-given, life-sustaining fish from various artists and from the great Irish poet, William Butler Yeats.
In his 1906 book The Mirror of the Sea, Joseph Conrad likened the sea to “a savage autocrat” with a “conscienceless temper”, the “irreconcilable enemy of ships and men.” The sea, however, has not stopped the centuries-old tide of emigrants. Today, people still cross the ocean to escape political or religious persecution at home, or simply to seek a better life in a foreign land. It’s a familiar narrative that is told in the following works of art.
American-born artist James McNeill Whistler is remembered by many for his iconic ‘‘Portrait of the Artist’s Mother’ and his dream-like paintings such as ‘Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville’. His etchings, however, are not less deserving of admiration. He created many such works, the most interesting being his etchings of waterfront scenes.
French artist James Tissot (born Jacques Joseph Tissot in 1936) was enamoured with women. No, not with women in general but with the fashionably dressed women of late Victorian society. He painted them in such a way that one would be irresistibly pulled in by their charm.
Vincent van Gogh painted waterside scenes with as much gusto as he did potato fields and orchards. No surprise there. The Dutch post-Impressionist master had great empathy for the poor folks whose work was related to water — the fisherman, the bargeman, the stevedore. But he also held a fascination for the sea as well as for rivers and canals. As the following oil paintings suggest, he saw water both as a means of sustenance for the working class and a source of calm for his troubled soul.
Greek mythology and the religion of ancient Greece have had a deeper impact on the shipping world than some people realise. The very word “ocean” can be traced back to the Greek Okeanos, the great river that flowed around the earth and was personified as Oceanus.
The gods and goddesses worshipped by the Hellenes have been memorialised in the names of such maritime companies as the UAE-basd Helios International FZC and Norway’s Poseidon Simulation AS. Some of the deities have even travelled the world, their names emblazoned on the hulls of ships. Here are some examples:
Australia is famous for the Sydney Opera House, Bondi Beach, Great Barrier Reef, kangaroos and koalas, dairy products, wines, and many other things besides. It is less noted for marine art, at least compared with the UK and The Netherlands. This is unfortunate. Australia has a long history of marine art, and its contemporary artists are busy producing plenty of it. Here’s a serving that should prove quite filling:
Many folks who have fallen in love with The Wellerman (full title: ‘Soon May the Wellerman Come’) call it a “sea shanty”. Even Scottish singer Nathan Evans, whose version went viral on TikTok in late 2020, has labelled it as such. They are sadly mistaken. The Wellerman is not a shanty but a 19th-century whaling ballad or folk song from New Zealand.
Why is it important to know this?
First, because it prevents us from making the same mistake many people make when they assume that Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is a sacred song or hymn. This highly popular song, which Cohen recorded in 1984, is actually about earthly, profane love that makes references to the Bible and has erotic connotations.
Seashells are beautiful in and of themselves. But humans are seldom content with nature. For thousands of years, they have been redesigning shells by painting them, making incisions and carvings, or adding some element such as as gold or silver frame. Whether driven by utilitarian, artistic or religious reasons, the act of altering such natural objects whilst preserving their form and structure allows humans to leave their imprint. Long after they are gone, memories of their life and times live on.
Millions of people must be familiar by now with ‘Wellerman’, the song which went viral on Tiktok in 2020. The Wellerman craze does not seem to have died down, so I thought I would share some marine art from where this 19th-century whaling song (no, it’s not a sea shanty) originated: New Zealand.
The following works, except the last one, are from the online collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. I trust that they will give the readers of Marine Café Blog an insight into the island country’s rich maritime heritage as well as its natural beauty.
“Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go,” the American novelist and screenwriter, Truman Capote, once said. Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet may not have felt exactly the same about the fabled city. For sure, though, Venice had an exhilarating effect on these two key figures in the art movement called ‘Impressionism’. Both painters depicted its waters, palaces, cathedrals and sky in colours that continue to bedazzle viewers in the 21st century.
Why has Venice fascinated so many artists through the centuries? The German art historian Gustav Pauli gave a straightforward answer in his 1904 book Venice: “Venice had always been one of the most picturesque cities of the world. What could have equalled in fantastic splendour the church of St. Mark, the Doges’ Palce, and their surroundings? — And again was it possible to imagine more delightful street-views, than were offered at every step by the narrow network of canals and streets?”