How many ways can a wave be depicted? You can see it from the side, at Hokusai, in front, at Monet, from inside, at Aivazovsky. And then?
Then it depends on what that wave means. If it’s a powerful show, if it’s a seething turmoil. It can be alone or with the sisters. It may still be far from the shore or it may have crashed on the rocks. Each wave is a story, which ends where the sea ends.
But it is not an ancient tale. The wave, as the only protagonist of the scene, did not appear before Romanticism, at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Because it is at that moment that man begins to deeply feel the forces of nature. Until then he had deluded himself that he could control the world and bend it to his image and likeness (an illusion that we still have and of which we pay the consequences) and he relegated the sea to the background of his actions.
There is just some surprising advance like Marco Ricci, who in the middle of the Baroque period painted some boats among the waves. But, in fact, there are boats. The wave is functional to the demonstration of the heroism of the fishermen.
I believe that the first single waves, without boats, are due to William Turner, a forerunner of all that is anticipated. From the early nineteenth century he devoted himself to waves for over forty years.
He paints them in oils and watercolors, with a few strokes, with transparencies, with water sprayed from the splashes. So ethereal and synthetic that if they didn’t have the title you’d mistake them for abstract paintings.
Certainly the presence of a ship gives the measure of the wave. Without the fishermen’s boats, how could we say how high Hokusai’s Great Wave is?
Placed next to Turner is an impressive distance. Yet it is from the same years (it was one of 36 views of Mount Fuji made between 1826 and 1833) and is vastly more famous. Because, as I wrote about icons, it has a simple, recognizable structure and bright colors.
Someone also found the structure of the golden spiral in it (and indeed many lines coincide in a surprising way), but I’m not sure if that proportion also belongs to oriental artistic cultures.
Certainly that style remains inimitable. Such a graphic wave, which seems to anticipate Art Nouveau by seventy years, will rarely be found. Perhaps in Gauguin, who took inspiration from Japanese prints.
And then in Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson, with his waves that seem combed or spread with a knife.
And then in the inevitable Escher.
But let’s go back and go in order.
After Turner it is Gustave Courbet’s turn. Just him, the one from the Origin of the world. In addition to stonebreakers and sleeping girls, he was a true marine enthusiast. And he dedicated more than one painting to the wave. This at the Staedel Museum in Frankfurt.
But in the same years he made many others, mostly with the same approach. He looks like a belated romanticist. For him the waves are swollen and heavy, turbid, dark.
Meanwhile in Norway Peder Balke makes some surprising paintings. The wave is made up of a single large brush stroke. The color, unique throughout the painting, is water and night. It seems to be on the edge of a maelstrom, the vortex that sucks up ships and people. They could perfectly illustrate Edgar Allan Poe’s story, even more so that there is also a tiny sail.
Speaking of illustrations, in 1866 those of Gustave Dorè came out for Coleridge’s The Ballad of the Old Sailor. The one with the ship in the storm is a powerful bubbling of waves that almost gets seasick if you look at it for too long!
A few years later, another swollen sea of breakers is at the center of a painting by John Singer Sargent. They are ocean waves, high, vigorous. Crossing them puts a continuous unease.
But we are already in full Impressionism. Now the sea doesn’t scare anymore. Renoir’s is all rain and foam.
Not to mention Monet’s waves: bright curls under a clear sky. On the other hand, Impressionism was above all this: to capture harmonies of light and color.
Then it is the turn of Pointillisme. But the Carthusian pointillist technique is certainly not the most suitable for depicting gusts and waves. Those of Maximilien Luce, in fact, are slow undulations that caress the beach.
The wave sequence in perspective is an interesting novelty. In the same years the Russian Efim Volkov also proposes it …
… And then also Munch, with anything but reassuring results.
For van Gogh, on the other hand, the waves are almost frontal and always accompanied by sailboats. Evidently the sea alone was not in its strings. On the other hand, its most beautiful wave is not made of water but is the one created with brushstrokes of blue in the sky of the starry night …
And then there’s him, the master of translucent water. An ante litteram hyperrealist. The one that leaves you with your mouth open. Ivan Aivazovsky.
So much virtuosity. I confess I’m not crazy about it. Just as I don’t like those contemporaries who go crazy on the web making their own photographic waves and foams.
I like art that sublimates reality. He recreates it with his language. If I have to see a sea identical to the sea … well I go to the beach and enjoy the real one!
Luckily there is Winslow Homer who knows how to evoke waves well. The slap of the water on the rocks makes you feel it with a few brushstrokes.
And then George Bellow with waves that seem dense while the emerald color adds a glacial tone to the whole.
Sorolla’s waves, on the other hand, are softer. But when they get angry it is better to look at them from afar, or sail them on a sailboat.
In the same years – we are at the beginning of the twentieth century – the waves also take on very different appearances. With Art Nouveau they become pure line, with its typical sinuous trend.
Con Georgia O’Keeffe diventano semplice essenza cromatica. Silenziose e spettrali.
Intanto Georges Lacombe introduce dei colori nuovi, com’è tipico dei simbolisti.
E prepara la strada alle onde più espressioniste della storia dell’arte. Quelle di Emil Nolde. Che più che onde sono allucinazioni allo stato liquido…
But let’s go back to Japan for a moment with photography. That of Kentaro Nakamura from 1927 stops a wave that crosses the image diagonally and seems to be drawn line by line with an all-oriental elegance.
On the other hand, photography, with the waves, has indulged. In a few decades he showed every aspect of it explored in the past by painters: power, geometry, rhythm, size.
Yet there are those who continue to paint them. Gerard Richter, author of abstract-abstract works, dedicated many canvases to sea waves in the 1960s. Dark, nocturnal, sometimes with water instead of the sky. They tell you that something will happen at any moment.
Latest, and more graphic, are the waves of Shepard Fairey, the artist of the famous red and blue portrait of Obama. Echoes of Hokusai and Escher, perhaps. But also a lot of pop, so much so that it even ends up on the walls of Jersey City.