ArtSmart has returned this month with the theme of Water. If you’re unfamiliar, ArtSmart is a roundtable of 8 bloggers from around the world writing about our two converging passions, art and travel. You can find my colleague’s posts at the bottom of this page for more artistic inspiration.
Water, the basis of life and a good view. Since the dawn of time artists recognized the aesthetic value of water. You can see it in Vancouver and Kelowna’s housing prices where a view of the lake or ocean will fetch you well over six figures. Or you can see it in the way Monet captured the reflectivity of his water lilies in Giverny. I for one am a sucker for a good view, pair that with wine and you’ll have a hard time getting me to leave. So for this month’s ArtSmart I’ve decided to take a look at my favourite works of art with the theme of water in mind. So let’s get to it, in no particular order.
European Medieval Monsters
Water has long been a body of mystery capturing the imaginations of every age. During the 16th century, when it was thought that every land animal had a sea creature to match, mythical creatures were represented on maps by cartographers. Not only did these map makers want to illuminate the way for sailors and patrons but they also wanted to show the sea life and potential dangers that loomed. Whales were shown as wolf-like mammals set to the sea.
And can you blame them for their heightened imagination? Every year new species are being discovered some that resemble science fiction more than reality.
Our obsession with the water continues on into the Renaissance and Baroque periods as the wealthy find ways to bring water scenes into every day life. Baroque is a period where elaborate scenes filling areas of opulence. Churches, fountains (both public and monarchy uses), architecture, theatres, you name it and you’ll recognize it with busy patterns of marble, gold highlights, grand religious or godly scenes to name a few characteristics. The Baroque style was used to show power and influence both of which you can see explicitly in the gardens of Versailles (see above). The godly figure here is Apollo, the sun god, and when the fountains are on he appears to be bursting from the water triumphantly. This story is used as a metaphor in relation to Louis XIV. Because him emblem was that of the “Sun King” where Apollo in this case is actually raising or “pulling” the sun to the East towards the Palace of Versailles. The sun raises at his will, a testament to Louis XIV belief in his power and ego.
Known for their iconic al fresco paintings enabling them to capture the movement of natural light within a landscape, you might have thought of the Impressionists before all others upon my mentioning “water” and art. Renoir, Monet and Pissarro to name a few, predominantly make up the group known for their visible brush strokes and captured images of every day life which increasingly included the sight of industrialization. Condemned as appearing unfinished, the work of the Impressionists were often written off and works by Monet, for example, were rejected from the salon that typically valued historical, classical and academic paintings.
The loose style seeking to capture the movement of light, despite its cold reception, helped pave the way for the future avant-garde movements to come, particularly the Post-Impressionists such as Gauguin, Van Gogh and Signac.
Depending on how long you have been following this blog you may or may not know of my fascination with Turner and my familial connection to him. I remember the moment I first saw a Turner. Looking back I can’t believe it took me so long but it was when I was about twenty-one in art history 101. His use of light and paint really blew my mind and captured my eyes as if I were under some sort of hypnosis. His style of painting brings out the movement of water come to think of it whether it is falling apocalyptically from the skies or rushing over a slave ship or calmly reflecting scenes of Venice.
Turner was big on experiences and was a sort of daredevil of the painting world. He would strap himself atop a ship mast to see the storm but also experience it first hand perhaps helping him capture the hectic movement of water, wind and the general chaos of nature’s power.
Hokusai’s Floating Worlds
Hokusai (1760 – 1849), the first internationally famed Japanese artist, specialized in Ukiyo-e woodblock printing. Ukiyo-e means pictures of floating worlds of which Hokusai made famous. In response to an increase of travel for pleasure woodblock landscapes became popular. Hokusai’s The Great Wave of Kanagawa (1829-32) depicts the power of the sea towering over Mt Fuji in the background.
John William Waterhouse
Conveniently named Waterhouse, his Pre-Raphaelite work dealt with a strong sense of mysticism and water being a source for ominous narratives to play out. Often taking tragic characters from poetry such as The Lady of Shallot, based on the Alfred Tennyson poem of the same name, Shakespeare’s Macbeth character Ophelia, the Greek mythological character of Circe to name a few, the Pre-Raphaelites were a brotherhood who strove create art that is both true to nature and recalls the vibrant bold colours of the Medieval art.
If anything is accomplished by this post I believe it is in revealing the symbolism and function of water within art.
Water, the source of life, power, leisure, economy, violence and death. The art and artists listed above, only brought together because of my own preferences, all show a critical look at how water shapes our lives and has captured our imaginations throughout time.
So now I bring the question to you – what’s your favourite art featuring water?