“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.

Tropical Wave, 1937
Marguerite Blasingame (American, 1906–1947)

Hawaii-born Marguerite Blasingame‘s painting pays tribute to the Polynesian lifestyle and love for sailing and surfing. It is more dramatic in a way than Hokusai’s famous woodblock print, The Great Wave. The towering wave reaches to very the top of the canvas, forming a triumphal arch to frame sea and sky. Most of the sky is painted in light, luminescent yellow, which adds vibrancy to an otherwise stark seascape.

Bañista (Bather,) 1928
© Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973)
Note: The works of Pablo Picasso are under copyright. This image is published on this website
under the ‘Fair Use’ principle.

There are numerous paintings by famous artists that depict people bathing at sea. With the exception of Salvador Dali’s Bañistas (Bathers), also painted in 1928, Picasso’s Bañista blows them out of the water. The misproportioned, gender neutral figure on the beach occupies almost the entire height of the canvas. It appears to be playing with a ball, which could, however, represent the sun or the moon strangely wearing a dark halo. The outlandish painting may be interpreted as a celebration of the artistic spirit: free, playful and unafraid to break the boundaries of conventional reality.

Bathers, 1910
Léon Spilliaert (Belgian, 1881–1946)

A commonplace theme in art is given a unique iteration in this drawing by Léon Spilliaert. Three women are silhouetted against a pattern of waves. They are standing close to each other. Was Spilliaert depicting female bonding in a world where women are struggling to establish their independence and self-identity? This intriquing work exemplifies what the Musée d’Orsay in Paris says of the gifted Belgian artist: Léon Spilliaert was a man of troubling solitude and infinite perspectives. Drawing on metaphysical questions and Flemish culture, he surprises and mystifies with his uncategorisable works, inventing a symbolism of inner darkness that has marked Belgian art.

La Voile jaune (The Yellow Sail), ca. 1905
Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916)

Two veiled women are on a sailing boat laden with what look like jewels and flowers. Surely, the boat is symbolic of something but what? Some would  probably draw a comparison with the funerary boat of the ancient Egyptians. Is this the artist’s interpretation of the archetypal  journey to the afterlife? Odilon Redon, who is called a symbolist painter by art historians, keeps viewers guessing as he ushers them into a secret, mystical world.

Feminine Wave and Musculine Wave, ca. 1840
Katsushika Hokusai (Japanese, ca. 1760–1849)

The waves in Hokusai’s two woodblock prints look threatening and beautiful at the same time. Although they are stylised, they are actually faithful to reality (see my blog post, ‘Beauty and terror: ocean waves in Japanese art‘). There is a subtle difference in colour and form between these two prints. The blue tunnel created by the second wave is larger and deeper than that of the first. Seen in terms of the Chinese yin-yang duality, It is the hardness and activity of the male versus the softness and passivity of the female.

~ Barista Uno

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