There is a painting in this magnificent review of the American realist Winslow Homer (1836-1910) which is as scary as anything you will see in a gallery. It shows a fisherman lifting a turbulent wave in his fragile boat, as an erasing mist begins to roll over the horizon.
The boat capsizes, the catch slips, the man paddles hard against the oncoming threat, his head lit against the fading light. Will he be able to get back to the distant mothership before he disappears? There is no way to know. The painting takes you right out there, all out to sea with the lone figure in danger. It doesn’t bring you comfortably back.
That Homer saw such a scene himself is beyond doubt. He painted The fog warning in 1885 in Prouts Neck, on the rugged coast of Maine, where he lived alone in a beach cottage for more than a quarter of a century. The cottage itself hovers like a ghost in the thickening fog in a scene seen from black rocks on the sand. The North Atlantic is wild, windswept and changeable in its art, a terrible field for local fishermen to pick up, with their boats nearly sinking in gigantic waves. But it is also, and always, wonderful.
Homer paints the sea spiraling up in volcanic eruptions, or rolls straight at you, spewing ghosts of foam, or suddenly calms down into ominous silence. He gains strength from it as superbly as his icy liquidity. There is a stunning work entitled North East in which the incoming waves, which show their green translucency against a gray and eerie sky, crash against a jagged promontory in waves so ferocious that the instinct in the tunnel is to stoop.
But Homer is right there, on the rock, standing against the tide. The real subject of him from first to last is humanity’s struggle for survival. Born in Boston, who did not have an art school, he was primarily self-taught, learning the rudiments of his trade at a local lithography shop. Like so many future stars from Edward Hopper to Andy Warhol onwards, he started out as a commercial illustrator.
Posted by Harper’s magazine to cover up the civil war, Homer brought back paintings which in turn could be made into prints. The most famous are all in this show, from the Union sharpshooter in a tree, killing his enemies with a rifle, to the Confederate soldier who stands up in a hungry challenger on his mound to be shot down, towards the end. of the deadly siege of Petersburg in Virginia. Like the moments they describe, these are momentous images.
But the great icon of civil war art does indeed show the consequences. Homer painted The veteran in a new field in 1865, after the surrender of General Robert E Lee. It shows the veteran of the same name with his back to us in front of a cornwall under a fiery blue sky. His shirt is a thick white flash as he raises a heavy scythe at the harvest, mowed stems scattered all over the place in what inevitably to modern eyes seem to be the origins of a Jackson Pollock.
On the ground, the veteran’s old Union jacket lies abandoned. A single blood red touch draws attention to Homer’s signature, engraved in the same pigment alongside. He swords into plowshares: which is the obvious biblical subtext; but the grim reaper is still at work.
Homer used blades, sticks and spatulas. There are areas of paint that are so wildly disconnected from what they describe that they seem almost abstract – a heavy white spot lighting up a harbor wall, butter-yellow strokes that resolve into the sails of a moonlit ship – and the strength of his brush it’s like a battle cry.
One of the larger images here shows a woman carrying a basket along a rocky ledge in a storm inflating her apron as dangerously as the boat sails on the waves: the woman, like work, literally a tower of strength. And this is the painter who works, now, with equal strength in the fugitive watercolor.
Homer may have disappeared, like a second Emerson, in solitary confinement in Maine. But there were fishing trips in the Caribbean, which produced spot-on watercolors of palm trees and storm-plagued sharks bubbling in the clear waters off Nassau. Somehow their content is too familiar (and over-represented, in 18 out of 50 paintings). Homer’s power derives at least in part from his absolute strangeness.
Two ducks fight for their lives above a murderous expanse of Black Sea: one fighting against the horizontal wind, the other upside down in the water as if struck by a gunshot. Homer paints them in a striking close-up, as if you were there with them, suspended in the air between life and death.
The dark figures enter The Life Brigade they are paralyzed by the prospect of a stormy ocean that continues to come: should they risk their lives? And in the extraordinarily dramatic painting that concludes this show, you realize that this has always been the crux. Kiss the moon it shows only the heads of three fishermen, their bodies completely obscured by a thunderous wave that rises above the painting, so you realize that their boat must crash between two potentially fatal surf. How will they survive? The image holds the scene, and their lives, squarely in the balance.
Unless you have been to the Kaunas museum that bears his name, it is unlikely that you have come across visions of Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis, Lithuanian painter and composer, died of pneumonia in 1911 at the age of 35. His works are as extravagant as they are delicate. Each is a world in the world, exquisitely painted in tempera, very often on shoddy paper or cardboard.
The light flickers in a Lithuanian forest and the trees transform into changing figures. Two crowned heads look at an urban landscape enclosed in 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 smoking towers below.
Cities in the hills glow under multiple moons. Moonlight hits a lake, not once but somehow twice. Spooky dinosaurs join the animals of the ark, led by figures carrying banners that irresistibly allude to the free Lithuania that Čiurlionis didn’t live long enough to see. Streams of pale stars surround these visual poems.
There are shades of 19th century symbolism and theosophy all over the place, and inevitably people have claimed to see (or hear) the music in his art, especially the lyrical desire of his piano works. But Čiurlionis sometimes tends towards an abstraction that also precedes Kandinsky, particularly in the ethereal Winter sequence. Here, the snowfall on the ground gradually diminishes, paint by paint, until it becomes nothing but white light on brown paper. A fascinating sight in another of the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s revealing shows.
Star ratings (out of five)
Winslow Homer: the power of nature ★★★★★
MK Čiurlionis: Between worlds ★★★★