Do round sharks now represent Trump? Winslow Homer: Force of Nature – Review | art

TThe black sailor lay on his broken, stricken boat. All around him, the sea trembled and shivered. A storm is coming, to judge from the spinning column of gray water on the horizon. A ship is sailing in these murky waters but will you care enough to help? The sharks seem to know they won’t. They are expecting a meal any minute now. They roll and slide next to the boat, blinking their giant mouths and tiny eyes.

This is Winslow Homer’s 1899 masterpiece The Gulf Stream, and there can be no loan in time for National Gallery From the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as the United States consumes its history of racial injustice and expectations of catastrophe, even from a second civil war. Is America doomed to such seas? Is he a wreck about to be torn apart by his divisions, being attacked by a circular shark for Trump’s second nomination? Homer has no answers but does ask the question of how a nation with such a legacy of slavery could escape its past.

The Gulf Stream deserves to be an American icon, a billboard that tells more about its past, present and possible future. Warhol Marilyn. Black artists cleverly chew it. Kara Walker recreated it as a disastrous amusement park fountain with fake sharks at the 2019 Tate Turbine Hall Commission Vence Americanos. Kerry James Marshall reimagined it as an optimistic vision of a black family sailing under a calm sky, not a shark in sight.

The strength of Homer’s painting lies in the human figure. We wonder what the impotent man is thinking, and what signifies his attitude. Is he optimistic or desperate? Does he have one last trick up his sleeve to get out of this seemingly inevitable situation, like brave Chief Brody at the end of Jaws? A man does what his physical condition requires: if he stood on the small sloping surface, he would stagger into the mouth of a shark. So he lay on the ground, holding onto the ropes with both hands to prevent himself from slipping into the sea. He lifts his upper body resting on an elbow to look out at the sea. Perhaps he was looking for help. Or it could be that you saw him last in life.

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

Homer emphasizes the mystery of man’s position through his blackness. This is a painting of a white American man born in 1836. The great achievement of the National Gallery’s eye-opening saga through Homer’s art is to show how he came to imagine this scene and why he sums up his life’s work. The recurring themes of this work are race and the sea. And he’s worked hard, sometimes with poignant bluntness, to get both just right.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Homer was a young artist sent by Harper’s Magazine to cover the war. His early paintings, drawn from his drawings instantly, are exquisitely shocking. The sniper depicts a Union soldier in blue uniform sitting on a tree, aiming his rifle with a telescopic sight to capture Johnny Rep from a distance. The shooter’s face is blurry, without an expression that we can read. This is an early sign that Homer finds it difficult to interpret people like the sea.

There are also allusions to the symbolic power of his later work. The veteran character was drawn in New Field in 1865, the year the South was defeated. It’s hard to go wrong with a simple report. An ex-soldier came back to the ground, but as he circled with his back to us, there was terrible anxiety. It could be a grim reaper. Countless strands of corn are flowing toward us like all the lives taken 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 remains in the south, trying to communicate with the freed slaves. He depicts a white former slave owner facing a family of former slaves in his 1876 picture A Visit from the Old Mistress. The white woman looks frozen. The subtlety of expression is reserved for black women who stare at her with much in their eyes to be said–a lifetime and more questions and accusations.

The artist is analogous to the white visitor, in the sense that he is also embarrassed and frozen. Paraphrasing Damien Hirst, Walker described the portion of the Turbin Hall fountain statue that was built on the Gulf Stream as “the physical impossibility of darkness in the mind of a white person.” Homer grapples with this problem. You can see him trying to find a proper way to portray the blackness and fairness of black Americans in his art. But it does not come easily. And it’s not about this, he always gets the sea thing right – it’s easy to be distracted by the Victorian “swim dresses” that in one panel cling wet to the body of a woman, and in another, not quite surprisingly, drag two women down and drown them in half .

Homer could be a clumsy artist. However, despite all the exciting moments, there is an intensity and passion that they bring to his masterpiece. Some artists are born great. Others have to work like hell for it. Homer lacks the natural brilliance of a turner. His work can be as colorful and brutal as an Atlantic storm one minute and a little boring the next. But he has a rigor of self-doubt which finally enabled him, on the eve of the twentieth century, to create The Gulf Stream, a vision of America that now bothers us and won’t let go.

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