Winslow Homer: Force of Nature; MK Čiurlionis: Between the Worlds – the review | national gallery
Jhere is a painting in this wonderful survey of the American realist Winslow Homer (1836-1910) which is as chilling as anything you’ll see in a gallery. We see a fisherman emerge from a turbulent wave in his fragile boat, while an obliterating fog begins to roll on the horizon.
The boat rocks, the catch slips, the man rows hard against the oncoming threat, his head backlit against the fading light. Will he manage to reach the distant mother ship before it disappears? There’s no way to know. The painting takes you there, all at sea with the lone figure in peril. It doesn’t bring you back comfortably.
That Homer himself saw such a scene is beyond doubt. he paints fog warning in 1885 at Prouts Neck on Maine’s rugged coast, where he lived alone in a beach cottage for more than a quarter of a century. The chalet itself hovers like a ghost in thick fog in a scene seen from black rocks on the sand. The North Atlantic is wild, wind-torn and mercurial in its art, a terrible field for local fishermen to harvest, their boats almost sinking between gargantuan waves. But it is also, and always, great.
Homer paints the sea spiraling upwards in volcanic eruptions, or rolling straight at you, throwing up specters of foam, or suddenly stilling in an eerie silence. It gets its strength as superbly as its chilling liquidity. There is a stunning work called Northeast in which the incoming waves, showing their green translucency against an eerie gray sky, crash against a jagged promontory in breakers so fierce that the instinct in the gallery is to stoop.
But Homer is right there on the rock, steadfast against the tide. Its true subject from start to finish is humanity’s struggle for survival. Born in Boston, which had no art school, he was mostly self-taught, learning the basics of his craft at a local lithography studio. Like so many future stars from Edward Hopper to Andy Warhol, he started out as a commercial illustrator.
Sent by Harper’s Magazine to cover the civil war, Homer brought back paintings which could in turn be made into prints. The most famous are all in this show, from the Union sniper in a tree, striking down his enemies with a rifle, to the Confederate soldier standing in hungry defiance on his mound to be cut down, near the end of the murderous siege of Petersburg Virginia. Like the moments they describe, they are period images.
But the great icon of Civil War art actually shows the aftermath. Homer painted The veteran in a new realm in 1865, after the surrender of General Robert E Lee. It shows the eponymous veteran with his back to us in front of a wall of wheat under a scorching blue sky. His shirt is a thick white flash as he raises a heavy scythe towards the harvest, the mown stalks strewn all around in what inevitably looks to modern eyes at the origins of a Jackson Pollock.
On the floor, the veteran’s old Union jacket is thrown. A single blood-red touch draws the eye to Homer’s signature, inscribed in the same pigment alongside. Swords in ploughshares: that is the obvious biblical subtext; but the grim reaper is still at work.
Homer used blades, sticks and palette knives. There are areas of paint so disconnected from what they describe that they seem almost abstract – a heavy white smudge to set a harbor wall ablaze, buttery yellow strokes that resolve into the moonlit sails of a ship – and the sheer force of his brush is like a rallying cry.
One of the most beautiful images here shows a woman carrying a basket along a rocky ledge in a gust of wind that swells her apron as dangerously as the sails of the boat on the waves – the woman, like the work, literally a tour de force. And here is the painter working, now, with as much force in the fugitive watercolour.
Homer may have disappeared, like a second Emerson, in Maine isolation. But there have been fishing trips to the Caribbean, which have produced spot-on watercolors of storm-harassed palm trees and churning sharks in the translucent waters off Nassau. Somehow their content is all too familiar (and overrepresented, at 18 out of 50 paintings). Homer’s power comes at least in part from his utter strangeness.
Two ducks are fighting for their lives above a murderous expanse of black sea – one battling against the horizontal wind, the other headlong in the water as if downcast. Homer paints them in stunning close-up, as if you were right there with them, suspended in mid-air between life and death.
The dark faces of The Life Squad are paralyzed by the prospect of a raging ocean that keeps coming: should they risk their lives? And in the fantastically dramatic painting that concludes this show, you realize that was the crux throughout. kiss the moon only shows the heads of three fishermen, their bodies entirely obscured behind a thundering wave that rises up the board, so that you realize their boat must dive between two potentially deadly breaking waves. How will they survive? The image holds the scene, and their lives, exactly in balance.
Unless you have been to Kaunas Museum who carries his nameit is unlikely that you have encountered the visions of Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis, Lithuanian painter and composer, died of pneumonia in 1911 at the age of 35. His works are as eccentric as they are delicate. Each is a world within a world, beautifully painted in tempera, very often on cheap paper or cardboard.
Light flickers in a Lithuanian forest and trees turn into changing silhouettes. Two crowned heads gaze out over a cityscape contained within a glowing crystal orb. 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 while down.
The towns on the hills sparkle under several moons. Moonlight hits a lake, not once but twice. Spectral dinosaurs join the animals of the ark, led by figures carrying banners that irresistibly hint at the free Lithuania that Čiurlionis did not live to see. Streams of pale stars encircle these visual poems.
There are shades of 19th century symbolism and theosophy everywhere, and inevitably people claimed to see (or hear) music in his art, especially the lyrical longing for his piano works. But Čiurlionis sometimes tends towards an abstraction that predates even Kandinsky, especially in the ethereal Winter sequence. Here, the falling snow on the earth is gradually reduced, paint by paint, until it becomes nothing more than white light on brown paper. A fascinating sight in another Dulwich picture gallery revealing shows.
Star ratings (out of five)
Winslow Homer: Force of Nature ★★★★★
MK Čiurlionis: between the worlds ★★★★