Do the circling sharks now stand for Trump? Winslow Homer: Force of Nature – review | Art

Do the circling sharks now stand for Trump? Winslow Homer: Force of Nature – review | Art

Tthe black sailor lay back on his broken, doomed vessel. All around him the sea beat and shuddered. And a storm is coming, judging by the swirling column of gray water on the horizon. A ship is plowing through these turbulent waters, but will it care enough to help? The sharks seem to know it won’t. They are expecting a meal any minute now. They roll and slide along the boat, flashing their giant mouths and small eyes.

It’s Winslow Homer’s 1899 masterpiece The Gulf Stream, and there couldn’t be a more timely loan to the National Gallery from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art as the US is consumed by its history of racial injustice and prejudice from calamities, even of a second. civil war Is America doomed, like this sailor? Is it a wreck about to be torn apart by its own divisions, saved by the circling shark of a second Trump candidate? Homer has no answers, but he does raise the question of how a nation with such a legacy of slavery could ever escape its past.

The Gulf Stream deserves to be an American icon, a painting that says more about its past, present and possible future than Warhol’s Marilyn. Black artists mentally chew on it. Kara Walker recreated it as a fountain from a disaster theme park with fake sharks in her 2019 Tate Turbine Hall commission Fons Americanus. Kerry James Marshall repainted it as an optimistic vision of a black family sailing under calm skies, not a shark in sight.

The power of Homer’s painting lies in the human figure. We wonder what the helpless man is thinking, what his posture means. Is he hopeful or despairing? Does he have one last trick up his sleeve to get out of this seemingly inescapable situation, like the tough Chief Brody at the end of Jaws? The man does what his physical situation requires: if he stands on the tiny slanted deck, he will stagger into a shark’s mouth. He lay down and held on to ropes with both hands to prevent him from slipping overboard. And he raised his torso, resting on one elbow, to examine the sea. He may be looking for help. Or he might just get his last glimpse of life.

Moments of uneasiness… The Bather (1899). Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The enigma of the man’s attitude is emphasized, for Homer, by his blackness. Because this is a painting by a white American man born in 1836. The great achievement of the National Gallery’s eye-opening odyssey through Homer’s art is to show how he came to imagine this scene and why it sums up his entire life’s work. The recurring themes of that work are race and the sea. And he worked hard, sometimes with a touch of clumsiness, to get them both right.

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

There are also indications of the symbolic power of his later work. The Veteran in a New Field was painted in 1865, the year the south was defeated. It is difficult to confuse with simple reporting. An ex-soldier is back on land, but as he turns his back on us, there is a terrible commotion. He could be the Grim Reaper. Countless strings of corn stream toward us like all the lives cut down by war.

Flower Garden and Bungalow, Bermuda (1899) by Winslow Homer.
Flower Garden and Bungalow, Bermuda (1899), by Winslow Homer. Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Homer stays around the south trying to connect with freed slaves. He depicts a white former slave owner encountering a former slave family in his 1876 painting A Visit from the Old Mistress. The white woman looks frozen. Subtlety of expression is reserved for the black women who stare at her with much more in their eyes than could ever be said – a lifetime and more of questions and accusations.

The artist identifies with the white visitor, in the sense that he also feels uncomfortable and frozen. To paraphrase Damien Hirst, Walker calls the part of her Turbine Hall fountain sculpture based on The Gulf Stream The Physical Impossibility of Blackness in the Mind of Someone White. Homer struggles with that problem. You can see him trying to find an adequate way to portray blackness and do justice to black Americans in his art. But it doesn’t come easy. He doesn’t always get the sea right either – he’s easily distracted by Victorian “swimming dresses” that cling wetly to a woman’s body in one painting and, not entirely surprisingly, pull two women down and half-drown in another.

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


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