Art Fart: Fantastical Waves

When studying at a University known for being a coastal city, it is hard for even my English course to tear itself away from the sea, and I don’t blame them.

I have always been at some point close to the sea, not the seaside-holiday-bucket-and-spade-sun-burning sea, but the quiet-everyone-has-gone-to-have-dinner-and-you’re-just-walking-alone-with-a-few-kite-surfers-blocking-the-sunset sea.

This post is going to be in waves of three:

They say here that great waves reach the coast in threes. Three great waves, then an indeterminate run of lesser rhythms, then three great waves again.

The Outermost House, 1928 – Henry Beston


The Great Wave of Kanagawa | Katsushika Hokusai, 1829-32 | Colour Woodblock

This is one of the most iconic images of waves. Even when I typed in ‘wave’ into google, it immediately showed for one of the results this woodblock print. It is also seen as the most recognised piece of Japanese artwork. The amount of intricate detail and control of colour really shows the care and time Hokusai has taken into making this piece of work.

Even though the subject matter is these boats trying to steady themselves yet struggling against the great, and even majestic, waves of the sea with a small mountain peaking in the background as if to imitate one of the waves but a less fluid form. Although this clearly shows a sense of chaos, because of the nature of working with woodblock where a steady hand is often required to make clean lines and the distinct style this Japanese art(ist) has acquired, there is also an element of control and focus embodied in these waves. The waves almost appear beyond nature, monumental and ungodly with their sweeping forms and small curls looking like pointy fingers gripping at the air. The sea spray looks as if it is falling gently like snow, juxtaposing the sharp imagery of the waves.

It also really shows how mankind is powerless and quite meek against the monster that is nature, no matter how beautiful it is and no matter how much we try to control and tame it in this artistic style.

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The Tempest / Bride of the Wind | Oskar Kokoschka, 1913 | Oil on Canvas Painting

This is a self-portrait of the Expressionist artist and his lover, Alma Mahler. However, she was a widow to composer, Gustav Mahler. This made their love a struggle and even though Alma made the decision for their unrequited love and relationship to come to a conclusion, Oskar never stopped loving her. This painting became his most expressive pieces of work and a passionate form of their expression viewers get to see immortalised in oil on canvas.

The two lovers are swirling in an ocean of their love and compassion with a shell cupping them into each other’s arms, showing an intimate connection. However, because they are in an ocean, the ocean is a grand and expansive amount of space that the painting represents their distance in a dreamlike state/fantasy as well as togetherness. The overwhelming blue and green tones are expressive of the sad and even mournful undertone of the painting based on their relationship. But the active and gestural brush marks evoke a sense of excitement and passion that the relationship might have brought for Kokoschka. This can also be seen in the small flecks of vibrant colour floating around the painting.

Mahler looks like a bride as expressed in one of the painting’s names, ‘Bride of the Wind’. This is from the light, pale colours to appear like white, a colour that signifies purity and innocence for weddings in western culture and her hair is entangled in the ocean like a veil. However, the colour white signifies in Chinese culture (forgive me if I’m wrong) death and is worn in funerals so for people who are familiar with that culture competence could read this painting as the mourning and death of their romantic relationship. Because of this glowing pedestal, Kokoschka has given her in her restful and calm state, she almost becomes an embodiment of the sea and shows how the waves can be gendered as a female in art and literary texts.

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Starry Night | Vincent Van Gogh, 1889 | Oil on Canvas Painting

‘Wait, this isn’t a piece of work with waves’ No it isn’t, BUT it can be read as if the sky was. Bear with me. Grrrrr. Sorry, bad pun.

The sky looks like very dreamy, albeit trippy, swirls of waves and because of the individual impressionist marks, not one wave is the same. These swirls are almost paradoxical being at the top of the painting reaching above the surface and the stars look like bio-luminescent fish in the depths of the ocean that only appear during the night time.

It might be interesting to note the dark undertone of this painting and probably all of Van Gogh’s work. In terms of a biographical reading, this painting can be a metaphor for the waves of depression and problems with mental health Van Gogh was going through during his adult life. Considering he was famous for using yellow in his colour palette evident in the stars and moon of ‘Starry Night’, this would often evoke a connection to happiness, light and joy. However, it can be seen as almost the colour of being unwell evident in the wilting ‘Sunflowers’ and Van Gogh’s self-portrait. Not only that, but the yellow in this painting is almost drowning in the dark depths of the ocean that can represent Van Gogh’s cloudy waves of mental stability and his internal struggle between life and death.

Unfortunately, this painting can, therefore, be a metaphor for the dominance of darkness and death when Van Gogh had taken the decision to take his life in 1890 when he shot himself in the chest.

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I hope you can see these pieces of work in a different, more interpretive way that are really just layers to and endless amounts of meaning. Thank you for reading.

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