Our planet is named “Earth”, or Gaia/Gaea for ancient Greeks and Terra/Tellus for Romans. These appellations have also always been used to describe “land.” Isn’t it strange then that our planet would be named after “land,” when 70 percent of its surface is covered by oceans?
Regardless, the breathtaking oceans and seas have been inspiring artists throughout human history. The shapes and colors of water alone are enough to provide any painter inspiration for a lifetime. Myths and legends surrounding seductive sirens or mermaids are plenty across cultures, and volumes have been written on adventures in the mighty seas and on the elusive, unknown creatures lurking in the depths of the Mariana Trench and the likes.
SIRENS, MERMAIDS AND GODDESSES
Aphrodite, or Venus, the Goddess of Love and Beauty, was born out of sea foam, surfing ashore on a shell pushed by the breath of Zephyrus, the god of the west wind. Sandro Botticelli created one of the most famous paintings in the world, “The Birth of Venus,” between 1484-85, and the renowned piece can be admired in the Uffizi gallery in Florence, Italy.
Another take on the woman-in-water theme is the video piece “Sip my Ocean” by Pipilotti Rist. The artist goes underwater and takes the viewer with her. “Sip my Ocean” is presented as two mirrored projections on two adjoining walls, offering a hypnotizing and kaleidoscopic view of an underwater landscape. The soundtrack is Rist’s version of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game”, where the lyric “I don’t want to fall in love again” is repeated over and over, sung sweetly at first, but ending in a shrieking scream. Is “Sip my Ocean” perhaps the mermaid's perspective on love?
Many more artists have explored the sirens-mermaid-goddess variation throughout time; have a look at Evelyn de Morgan’s “The Sea Maidens” painted in 1886, Chris Ofili’s “Siren Three” created in 2005, Roy Lichtenstein’s “Mermaid” sculpture, installed in Miami in 1979, and of course the beloved tale of “The Little Mermaid”, written by Hans Christian Andersen in 1837, as just a few examples.
WAVES, HORIZONS AND COMPOSITIONS
Is this the most well-known wave out there? A woodblock print in indigo and Prussian blue by Japanese master Hokusai, from early 1800. This is one of thirty-six views depicting Mount Fuji, and the way Hokusai put the mountain in the background surrounding it with great waves makes for a very interesting perspective. Mount Fuji can be seen as symbolizing Japan, while the waves represent life and the unpredictability of it, right before it crashes down on fishing boats. The composition of Caspar David Friedrich's famous painting “The Monk by the Sea”, 1808-10, was shockingly simplistic when painted. The composition is divided horizontally; land, sea, sky. A male figure – the monk – is standing on the shore turned away from the viewer looking toward the sea and the horizon.
Another striking set of “Seascapes” is made by Hiroshi Sugimoto. The view of the ocean, the sun and the sky is the same as it has been since the beginning of time. Just think about that! Almost every other part of our planet is altered by time, erosion, climate change or humans. But the view of the horizon has stayed the same for the dinosaurs, Vikings, sailors and tourists alike. It’s where we all come from. Maybe that’s the reason why it’s so captivating?
The green-ray optical phenomenon can appear around the moment of sunrise or sunset, right before the sun disappears under the horizon. If viewed on sea level, and if the circumstances are right, a green ray will appear. Tacita Dean’s “The Green Ray” was shot on 16mm color film and documented what the digital cameras couldn't.
SOUNDTRACK FOR DIVERS AND SWIMMERS
“The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” (2004) is a film directed by Wes Anderson. It stars Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston and is set on the water, say no more. However, the reason this is featured in our list is not only the aquatic life as described by Wes Anderson. A special highlight is due for the film’s soundtrack, and particularly Seu Jorge's wonderful interpretations of some of David Bowie’s famous work. We can’t emphasize enough how much we love the combination. A long shot, perhaps (pun intended), but Laurie Anderson' “Mach 20” is an ode to swimmers? In this piece, she compares a sperm to a whale, and if a human sperm were the size of a whale how fast would it swim across the Pacific Ocean? That’s a great piece of ocean art. Debussy’s “La Mer” is another tribute to the sea. A musical depiction of life underwater, created by a man who did not know how to swim. Debussy said he found most inspiration from paintings of the sea, and requested that “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” by Hokusai be used as the cover for the score. Oceans and sea surface are found in countless paintings, photographs, poems, literature, video art and music. Let’s continue to protect oceans, the beautiful blue muse for artists to come.