When viewing art, I often find myself comparing it to tea or coffee. That may seem odd, but the analogy makes perfect sense. An art piece such as a painting or woodblock print has a unique flavour — a distinctive quality or atmosphere that sets it apart from the works of other artists or even from those by the same artist. Needless to say, great art provides more than just visual refreshment. The following are some examples from the world of marine art:
What did Blackbeard, one of history’s most famous pirates, look like in real life? I believe we will never know for sure. Blackbeard, byname of Edward Teach (or Thatch), lived from around 1680 to 1718 — long before the advent of photography. He is typically shown sporting a luxuriant beard (hence the nickname), but that does not really say much about his true countenance.
Many beaches have been emptied of tourists and holidaymakers as the coronavirus epidemic drags on. No worries. Winslow Homer, the 19th century American artist best known for his marine subjects, can transport beach lovers beyond the boundaries of time and space.
Entire cities and countries are in lockdown because of the coronavirus. Millions are forced to stay at home, marooned like the pirate in the 1903 drawing by American illustrator and author Howard Pyle (from his Book of Pirates). Humans being hopelessly social creatures, it is a miserable state of affairs. Even so, I hope the following works of art, together with my random reflections, would help mitigate the misery of those who are not used to being isolated from the crowd.
Willem van de Velde II (1633–1707) was one of the leading Dutch marine painters of the 17th century, if not indeed the best amongst them. He was a consummate artist. He depicted fishing boats and naval ships with remarkable precision and artistic discipline — both of which he learned early in life from his father, a sailor and himself a gifted naval artist. Particularly noteworthy was Van de Velde II’s sensitivity to atmospheric changes and the subtle movement of clouds over calm or rough seas. Beyond the technical aspect, however, one gleans from his works the Dutch people’s special connection with the sea and deep pride in their maritime heritage.
Early this February, I invited photographers on Facebook to submit their photographic artworks depicting the sea for a special Marine Café Blog feature. The idea was to show how one can use digital technology to extend the boundaries of the imagination and create memorable images. Here, in no particular order, are the most striking of the works submitted:
A girl in every port. The expression sums up the popular image of the sailor: an inveterate womaniser and skirt-chaser. The reputation, I think, is not wholly undeserved. With their pockets filled with dollars, seafarers get to meet women in all shapes and colours around the world. The temptation to have a fling can be too great to resist.
Some maritime Casanovas never change. They go on with their merry ways long after they have grown older and quit sailing. On the other hand, there are seamen who may have sown their wild oaths but eventually settled down and remained faithful to their wives. I have known both types. Many seafarers, I am sure, can identify themselves with the following artworks:
“That which is not slightly distorted,” wrote the French poet Charles Baudelaire, “lacks sensible appeal; from which it follows that irregularity — that is to say, the unexpected, surprise and astonishment, are an essential part and characteristic of beauty.”
The following works of marine art grab one’s attention precisely because they contain, in varying degrees, the distortion and irregularity that Baudelaire spoke of. They are not an imitation of reality. They are mirrors created by the artist to reflect that reality as much as their own inner thoughts and feelings.
To appreciate the Dutch genius in marine art, one need not look further than the seascapes of Hendrik Willem Mesdag (1831–1915). The Kunstmuseum in The Hague says of the artist (pictured above in his studio in 1903): “Mesdag was unequalled in his ability to produce atmospheric canvases depicting changing weather conditions on the North Sea coast at Scheveningen and the various activities of the fishing community that lived there.”
Anyone who has been following Marine Café Blog knows that I frequently talk about seafarers’ rights and marine art. These two subjects are the main courses, as it were, on the menu — the recurring themes that have come to define the tone and character of the blog. But why art in conjunction with the rights of mariners?
Corporate offices cannot be expected to serve as small art galleries. But why should shipping and manning companies display only ISM and MLC certificates on their lobby walls? Why not also marine paintings, even if they are only repros works by famous artists? Some art would help give the premises a more pleasant atmosphere. It would also send a subtle message to visitors that the CEO knows how to appreciate art and is not a certified philistine.
Generally speaking, people tend be more impressed by things that are large than by similar things of smaller scale. Thus, a mansion is likely to draw more attention and plaudits than a bungalow; a limousine more than a compact car; and a cruise ship more than a catamaran. Yet, size does not — or should not — matter when it comes to art.