Beautiful Disasters: Why We Love Shipwrecks

December 31, 2012 § 1 Comment

shipwreck_480Claude Joseph Vernet, The Shipwreck, 1772 (National Gallery of Art, Washington)

I visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s exhibition, “Shipwreck! Winslow Homer and ‘The Life Line” on a blustery, snowy December day. A perfect setting to absorb the chilly, complex, and sensual shipwreck paintings curated from a diverse group of artists spanning the course of 150 years. The show’s central piece “The Life Line” is one of Homer’s best known, but not his best.

philadelphiaImage5The Life Line, 1884. Winslow Homer. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Homer, a New England native, began his career creating illustrations for Harper’s Weekly. His early paintings demonstrate a strong narrative component, of which “The Life Line” is a prime example. In this painting, we see a shipwrecked woman rescued by an anonymous (his face obscured by her scarf) man. The obvious themes (heroism, valor, human ingenuity) feel a bit cliche, even trite. Yet the collection of paintings, which bring together diverse strands of intellectual and art history, demand that the viewers address difficult questions about the value and preservation of human life amidst the demands of survival and commerce.

winslow homer northeasterHomer, who went on to create a stunning body of landscape paintings, later foregrounded nature and it’s massive, often prehistoric presence beyond the human scale.

Well over a hundred years later, disaster at sea is far from the minds of Americans and their artists. However, our focus has now shifted to disasters of which we are not innocent bystanders, but active participants. The stunning work of Edward Burtynsky, a landscape photographer, depicts scenes of human impact on the environment. The images are profoundly different from the more Romantic works of  Vernet & Homer, yet we still stare and gasp, and marvel at the shape, color and composition of disaster. CHNA_SHY_13Edward-Burtynsky-IBQ_08 20100916-Burtnsky3

 

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