In Calm Waters, On Stormy Seas
May 30 - July 31, 2015
Inspired by Winslow Homer’s Eight Bells, this exhibition examines the unifying theme of water, both as physical experience and as symbol of abstract ideas. Depictions of calm waters convey notions of tranquility and clarity of mind, while images of stormy seas highlight the power of nature and lead the viewer to consider the fragility of human existence and our fear of the unknown. Traditionally, tumultuous waters have been associated with masculine characteristics, while calm waters have connoted a sense of femininity. But are placid waters always feminine? Are stormy seas necessarily masculine?
In Eight Bells, sturdy men in wide stances and fishermen’s attire face troubled waters without the slightest doubt of their power over nature; Homer’s painting exudes hypermasculinity. Yet, the female personification of the ocean is an important literary, as well as visual, theme; in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, the protagonist admits to have “always thought of her as feminine.” This exhibition presents an investigation of the pictorial and symbolic versatility of water, as seen in works of different time periods and mediums from the collection. How can water represent an almighty force in vast seascapes and allude to ritualistic duties in genre scenes? While exploring the images on display, viewers are encouraged to pay close attention to these dichotomies and challenge societal prescriptions.
Gendered depictions of water can include portrayals of human presence or may be purely abstract. Like Homer, artists such as Edweard Muybridge, Maurice Prendergast, Arno Minkkinen, and Sally Mann, rely heavily on the human body—male or female—to make such references. In contrast, modern and post-modern artists like Anthony La Paglia, Arthur Yanoff, and Pat Steir subtly suggest gender-specific qualities through their highly stylized depictions of waves. Curated by the students in the Phillips Academy course Art 300: Visual Culture: Discovering the Addison Collection, this exhibition explores not only how Homer portrayed the nuanced complexities he observed in the relationship between water and gender, but also how other artists since his time have redefined it.