There is a painting in this magnificent survey of the american realist Winslow Homer (1836-1910) which is as terrifying as anything you will see in a gallery. It shows a fisherman pushing up a turbulent wave in his fragile boat, while an obliterating fog begins to roll in on the horizon.
The boat capsizes, the catch slips, the man paddles hard against the oncoming threat, head illuminated against the fading light. Will he make it back to the distant mothership before it disappears? There is no way to know. The painting takes you right out there, all at sea with the lone figure in his danger. It doesn’t bring you back comfortably.
That Homer himself saw such a scene is doubtful. He painted The Fog Warning in 1885 at Prouts Neck on the rugged coastline of Maine, where he lived alone in a beach house for more than a quarter of a century. The cottage itself floats like a ghost in the thickening fog in one scene seen from black rocks on the sand. The North Atlantic is wild, wind-torn and mercurial in its art, a terrible field for the local fishermen to harvest, their boats almost sinking between gigantic waves. But it is also, and always, wonderful.
Homer paints the sea spiraling upward in volcanic eruptions, or rolling straight toward you, throwing up eerie foam or suddenly calming into an eerie stillness. He gets his power as superior as his freezing liquidity. There is a startling work with the title Northeast in which incoming waves, showing their green translucency against an ominous gray sky, crash against a jagged promontory in breakers so fierce is the instinct in the gallery to dive.
But Homer is right there on the rock, steadfast against the tide. His true subject from first to last is mankind’s struggle for survival. Born in Boston, which had no art school, he was primarily self-taught, learning the rudiments of his craft in a local lithography shop. Like so many future stars from Edward Hopper to Andy Warhol and beyond, he started out as a commercial illustrator.
Sent by Harper’s Magazine to cover the civil war, Homer brought back paintings that could be turned into prints again. The most famous are all in this show, from the Union sharpshooter against a tree, picking off his enemies with a rifle, to the Confederate soldier who rises in starved defiance on his hill to be shot down, towards the end of the deadly siege of Petersburg in Virginia. Like the moments they describe, they are epochal images.
But the great icon of civil war art actually shows the aftermath. Homer painted The veteran in a new field in 1865, after the surrender of General Robert E Lee. It shows the eponymous veteran with his back to us in front of a wall of wheat under a burning blue sky. His shirt is a thick flash of white as he raises a heavy six to the crop, the severed stalks scattered around in what inevitably looks to modern eyes like the origin of a Jackson Pollock.
On the ground lay the discarded veteran’s old Union jacket. A single crimson dab draws the eye to Homer’s signature, inscribed in the same pigment next to it. Swords in plowshares: that this is the obvious biblical subtext; but the grim reaper is still at work.
Homer used blades, sticks and palette knives. There are areas of paint so wildly disconnected from what they describe that they seem almost abstract – a heavy white smear to set fire to a harbor wall, butter yellow strokes dissolving into a ship’s moonlit sails – and the sheer power of his brush is like a rallying cry.
One of the best pictures here shows a woman carrying a basket along a rocky ledge in a storm, her apron flapping as dangerously as the sails of the boat on the waves – the woman, like the work, literally a tower of strength. And this is the painter who now works just as powerfully in fugitive watercolors.
Homer may have disappeared, like a second Emerson, into seclusion in Maine. But there were fishing trips to the Caribbean, which produced on-site watercolors of tousled palms and sharks seething in the translucent waters of Nassau. Somehow their content is too familiar (and overrepresented, at 18 out of 50 paintings). Homer’s power comes at least in part from his extreme strangeness.
Two ducks fight for their lives above a vast murderous black sea – one struggling against the horizontal wind, the other head down into the water as if shot. Homer paints them in stunning close-up, as if you were there with them, hanging in the air between life and death.
The dark figures in The Life Brigade standing paralyzed by the prospect of a rolling ocean that just keeps coming: should they risk their lives? And in the fantastically dramatic painting that closes this show, you realize that this was the crux all along. kiss the moon shows only the heads of three fishermen, their bodies completely hidden behind a thundering wave that rises against the painting, so that you realize their boat must dive between two potentially fatal breakers. How will they survive? The picture holds the scene, and their lives, exactly in balance.
Unless you have been to the museum in Kaunas that bears his name, you are unlikely to have seen the visions of Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, Lithuanian painter and composer, who died of pneumonia in 1911 at the age of 35. His works are as strange as they are delicate. Each is a world within a world, beautifully painted in tempera, very often on cheap paper or cardboard.
Lights flicker in a Lithuanian forest, and the trees turn into shifting figures. Two crowned heads look down on a cityscape contained within a glowing crystal ball. A tower of boxes, beautifully painted with angels and archers in scarlet and gold, rises like a pyramid above what turns out to be an imaginary landscape, once you notice the tiny smoke towers far below.
Cities on hills glitter under multiple moons. Moonlight hits a lake, not once but somehow twice. Spectral dinosaurs join the beasts of the ark, led by figures carrying banners that irresistibly point to the free Lithuania that Čiurlionis did not live to see. Streams of pale stars gird these visual poems.
There are overtones of 19th-century symbolism and theosophy throughout, and people have inevitably claimed to see (or hear) music in his art, specifically the lyrical longing of his piano works. But Čiurlionis sometimes tends towards an abstraction that predates even Kandinsky, especially in the ethereal Winter order. Here, the fall of snow on the land is gradually reduced, paint by painting, until it becomes nothing but white light against brown paper. A mesmerizing sight in another of Dulwich Picture Gallery’s revealing shows.
Star ratings (out of five)
Winslow Homer: Force of Nature ★★★★★
MK Čiurlionis: Between Worlds ★★★★