Force of nature – review

Force of nature – review

Force of nature – review

The black sailor lies down on his broken and doomed ship. All around him, the sea hums and shivers. And a storm is coming, judging by the spinning column of gray water on the horizon. A ship is plowing through these troubled waters, but will it care enough to help? The sharks seem to know she won’t. They expect a meal at any moment. They roll and slide by the boat, flashing their giant mouths and tiny eyes.

This is Winslow Homer’s 1899 masterpiece The Gulf Stream, and there couldn’t be a more timely loan to the National Gallery from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as the United States is consumed by its history of racial injustice and premonitions of disaster, too. of a second civil war. Is America doomed, like this sailor? Is it a wreck on the verge of being torn apart by its own divisions, ravaged by the circling shark of a second Trump candidacy? Homer has no answers, but he asks the question of how a nation with such a legacy of slavery can ever escape its past.

The Gulf Stream deserves to be an icon of the United States, a painting that says more about its past, present and possible future than Warhol’s Marilyn. Black artists chew it wittily. Kara Walker recreated it as a catastrophic theme park fountain featuring mock sharks in her 2019 Fons Americanus commission at Tate Turbine Hall. Kerry James Marshall repainted it as an optimistic view of a black family sailing under clear skies, not a shark in sight.

The power of Homer’s painting lies in the human figure. We wonder what the defenseless man is thinking, what his posture means. Is he hopeful or desperate? Does he have one last trick up his sleeve to get out of this seemingly inevitable situation, like brave boss Brody at the end of Jaws? The man is doing what his physical situation requires: if he stood up on the tiny sloping bridge, he would fall into a shark’s mouth. Then he lies down, holding on to the ropes with both hands to keep himself from slipping overboard. And he raises his upper body, leaning on one elbow, to scan the sea. He might seek help. Or he might just have the ultimate insight into life.

The enigma of man’s attitude is underlined, for Homer, by his obscurity. Because this is a painting of a white American male born in 1836. The great result of the eye-opening odyssey of the National Gallery through Homer’s art is to show how he came to imagine this scene and why it sums up the work of the whole life of him. The recurring themes of that work are running and the sea. And he worked hard, sometimes with heartwarming awkwardness, to make them both work.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Homer was a young artist sent by Harper’s magazine to deal with it. His early paintings, derived from his on-site sketches, are coldly shocking. The marksman portrays a Union soldier in a blue uniform sitting in a tree, aiming his rifle with a telescopic sight to hit Johnny Reb from a distance. The shooter’s face is blurred, with no expression that we can read. Here’s a first sign that Homer finds people as difficult to interpret as the sea.

There are also hints of the symbolic power of his later work. The veteran in a new field was painted in 1865, the year the south was defeated. Difficult to mistake for a simple reportage. A former soldier has returned to the mainland but while he mows, with his back to us, there is a terrible discomfort. He could be the Grim Reaper. Countless ears of corn flow towards us like all lives cut by war.

Homer stays in the south, trying to make contact with the freed slaves. He paints a white former slave owner who meets a family of former slaves in his 1876 painting A Visit from the Old Mistress. The white woman looks frozen. The subtlety of the expression is reserved for women of color who look at her with much more in their eyes than can ever be said: a lifetime and more of questions and accusations.

The artist identifies with the white visitor, in the sense that he too feels awkward and frozen. Paraphrasing Damien Hirst, Walker named the part of his sculpture of the Turbine Hall fountain based on The Gulf Stream The Physical Impossibility of Blackness in the Mind of Someone White. Homer is grappling with this problem. You can see him trying to find a suitable way to represent the darkness and do justice to black Americans in his art of him. But it is not easy. Nor is he always the right sea: he is easily distracted by the Victorian “bathing suits” that in one painting stick wet to the body of a woman and in another, not entirely surprisingly, they dragged two women down and half-drowned them. .

Homer can be a clumsy artist. Yet despite all the clunk moments, there is an intensity and a passion that lead him to his masterpiece. Some artists are born great; others have to work like hell for it. Homer lacks Turner’s natural brilliance. His work can be as deeply chromatic and wild as an Atlantic storm one minute and a little boring the next. But he has a self-questioning hardness that finally, on the eve of the 20th century, allowed him to create The Gulf Stream, a vision of America that now bites us and won’t let go.

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