The ocean is commonly viewed for its beauty and peacefulness, often being associated with being the ideal location for travel and relaxation. This reality has been manufactured by artists as they depict ideal beaches or calm days on the ocean for their audiences. Ideal artworks like these often overshadow the pieces that depict the ocean as the terrifying place that it is. Using the greater understanding of the frightening power of the sea some artists are able to communicate deeper, darker themes. Specifically, many artists have used the chaos of the sea to generate a clearer understanding of mortality. Using something that is relatable to the ocean to question what it means to be dead allows the audience a clearer understanding of the values that the artist is trying to convey. Often the topic of death is overlooked or misunderstood rarely being a common topic of discussion, but many artists want to pull the audience out of their comfort zone and into a contemplative state to question what it means to be dead and what mortality looks like. The specific correlation between the ocean and mortality as they seem to parallel each other creates a unique platform for artists to communicate how mortality is perceived or possibly how it should be perceived. This exhibit will focus on the relationship between the ocean and the question of mortality as mankind seeks to understand the imminence of death from the perspective of the living.
Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991, Glass, Painted Steel, Silicone, Monofilament, Shark, and Formaldehyde Solution
In this massive tank, Damien Hirst shows a real shark, a monster of the sea thought of by culture as something to be feared, in its most vulnerable state, death. The entire concept of this piece revolves around the idea of death being unattainable to an audience of the living. This piece provides a physical representation of death for the audience. As they see examples of death in various paintings it is hard to understand the gravity of death until they see it in the physical sense, especially at such a great scale. Using the ocean’s greatest predator as a representation of what death looks like helps the audience see that even the greatest of sea creatures has to answer to mortality.
Theodore Gericault, The Raft of Medusa, 1818-1819, Oil on Canvas, The Louvre
The terrifying reality of Gericault’s piece is that it is based on a true story, depicted is a small raft of survivors as they seek to be saved. Resorting to grotesque means of survival, such as cannibalism, these men represent a sense of desperation as they are faced with the likelihood of death. The composition draws the viewer into the scene as if they were there on the raft with the men, and that appears to be the intent of Gericault. He wants to demonstrate the lengths that man will go to escape the possibility of death when faced with such a terror as the vast ocean.
Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream, 1899, Oil on Canvas, 06.1234
In this oil painting Homer depicts a man at the brink of death stranded alone in the middle of the ocean. He is surrounded by a herd of hungry sharks and an approaching storm, both of which emphasize the imminent danger of the scene. The man is presented in a solitary state in contrast to Gericault’s The Raft of Medusa, but in his isolation, he appears at peace; he embraces death realizing his mortality at the hands of the sea. This piece illustrates an acceptance of mortality through the central figure as through his position amongst the terrors of the ocean he realizes that death is unavoidable.
Aleksey Savrasov, The Death of the Ship at Sea, 1862, Oil on Canvas
This daunting work by Savrasov depicts the final moments of a burning vessel as it meets its end to the tumultuous seas. The black vessel, although large, appears to be no match for the sea, it consumes the vessel in a white mist. Like death, the ocean is presented as an inescapable reality that the vessel and its crew must fall subject to. Death’s grasp is paralleled by the waves seeming to pull the ship under as they wrap themselves around the vessel. The power of the waves over the vessel represents the power of death over man.
Ivan Aivazovsky, Sea, 1881, Oil on Canvas
This piece by Aivazovsky shows the aftermath of a vessel that faced its demise amidst the harsh weather of the ocean. With nothing but the mast of this ship emerging from the jagged waves, the vessel is incredibly dwarfed by the ocean. Using the scale of the sea to show the insignificance of the boat, Aivazovsky wants the viewer to feel the weight of helplessness that the crew must have felt in the midst of such a terrible storm. The piece represents the larger scheme of mortality as it is inescapable and will consume men when their time has come.