Long before today’s disaster movies, there was the sea. Vast, wild, unpredictable and often deadly, it enabled Britain, an island nation, to bring back riches from all over the world (at the expense, it must be said, of those countries and people duly exploited). But it was the thrilling dangers, the risks taken by seafarers, that captured the non-sea-going public’s imagination.
Artists were quick to meet this demand. Scenes of shipwrecked mariners, clinging to rafts, attracted vast crowds to art shows from the early 19th century on. Théodore Géricault and Eugène Delacroix were among the first to crest this popular wave, and their work forms the starting point to Hastings Contemporary’s new Seafaring exhibition, featuring more than 50 works by mainly British artists from 1820 to the present day.
Feature films of the day
Curator James Russell says these works – in a world without internet, television or even photography – were the “blockbusters of their day”.
He told a preview show: “Shipwrecks were a popular subject. Newspapers were just getting going, and every time there was a major disaster it would be reported all around Europe.
“A painting like this [Géricault’s] was one of the feature films of the day. Forty thousand people came to see it when it went on display in London. It was like a Hollywood blockbuster movie.”
Those early Romantic seafaring works still resonate. The Géricault Raft of the Medusa (portrayed in the gallery by a very realistic facsimile – the original is in the Louvre) inspired at least one contemporary artist. Canvases by Cecily Brown reimagine these works in a highly coloured jumble of abstract images, which repay an extended gaze. “The longer you look at these paintings, the more they reveal,” notes Russell.
Seafaring is a subject as wide as the ocean, and Russell has gone far and wide to ensure stunning variety, persuading national collections to dust off some rarely seen works.
From the Tate, a large-scale canvas by Maggi Hambling depicts a boat sinking into a shimmering sea. Also on loan from the Tate is Peter de Francia’s large-scale triptych The Emigrants– a bold, vivid tribute to the Windrush generation.
Adrift on an empty ocean
War inspired some poignant images, such as Richard Eurich’s unflinching Survivors from a Torpedoed Ship and Norman Wilkinson’s weirdly poignant painting of a man adrift on an empty ocean.
A war-weary British public flocked to these shows, searching for meaning and light relief during a period of privation and sacrifice; hope glimmers though, in the confident lines of Sussex artist Eric Ravilious. And there is fun to be had in Edward Ardizzone’s drawings of servicemen cavorting on deck and in a more modern work, Chris Orr’s Small Titanic (1993).
Russell has unearthed some fascinating oddities, such as depictions of Dazzle Ships, painted with wide looping stripes to confuse the enemy (whether they worked or not is open to question).
And as we move on to ocean liners, there is a classic poster enticing European emigrants to a life in the New World. Prohibition in the States saw the traffic eventually go the other way – giving birth to a craze for luxury ocean voyages.
As Russell says of the show: “Seafaring explores the perils and pleasures of life at sea, while at the same time taking visitors on an art historical voyage from the Romantic age to the present.”
His Seaside Modern for Hastings last year was huge fun, but his latest show makes an even bigger splash.
Gallery’s anniversary year
This year marks an important anniversary for the gallery. Director Liz Gilmore said: “Ten years ago our building opened on The Stade, home to the largest beach-launched fishing fleet in Europe. Seafaring is the perfect exhibition for our anniversary year, bringing to Hastings works by major historical and contemporary artists.”
Hastings Contemporary started life as the Jerwood but was last month gifted to Hastings Borough Council. A good working relationship has already been established, giving Liz and her crew the confidence to set course for shows such as this, we hope, well into the future.
Seafaring continues at Hastings Contemporary until Sunday, 25 September.
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