Artists didn't pay much attention to the sea as a subject in itself until early in the 19th century. Until that time, it had for the most part served as a kind of backdrop to naval pageantry think, for example, of the great Dutch marine art of the 17th century, which vaunted the fact that Holland was the hub of a great maritime empire. There was another use for the sea, as well, in those years: it was often regarded as an all-too-natural context of human tragedy, death by shipwreck.
Then came Romanticism, and the sea rapidly became associated with ideas of divine immensity which mirrored the unfathomable depths of the human soul itself. A little later still, from about 1860 onwards, the sea transformed itself into something else altogether as a result of the efforts of an entire generation of French painters. It served to trumpet the relatively new delights of seaside tourism see the great canvases of Eugne Boudin, for example, in which intrepid and overdressed Parisians dare to walk the Normandy sands, accompanied by far too many retainers.
Then came Impressionism, and finally at long last! quoth the Sea it was the sea itself that became the subject matter, in the paintings of Monet and others. As Monet's art matured, he became more and more inclined to view the sea as a thing in itself, as an element that should be experienced unencumbered by any human presence.
And yet, as we are never tired of hearing, it was still not so much the sea itself as how the sea becomes transfigured, moment by moment, by the effects of light (and anyone who has stood on the cliffs at Etretat would sympathise with that impulse).
So how does Maggi Hambling, painter of the miserably cold and ceaselessly inhospitable North Sea, fit into all this? Well, for Hambling the sea is everything in these new paintings of hers. It is not an adjunct to the land. It does not co-exist with the land in order to encourage the prettification of both. It simply exists, an entirely robust subject in its own right, ever-present, ever-engulfing, in its fury.
Just occasionally there is almost a horizon line as in Wave Approaching Rain, for example but for the most part it is as if Hambling is right in the middle of all its wallowing, churning, never-ending rage. Hambling's view of the sea as embodied in these paintings reminds me of some snarly, vicious pit bull. And she faces it straight on. In fact, she seems to be trying to face it down, to pit her wits against it, to prove that the painter well, this painter, anyway when confronted by the sea, is also some kind of feisty elemental force to be reckoned with.
Now this is not quite as fanciful as it sounds because, as many of us are doubtless aware, Hambling herself is, by popular report, a bit of a snarly tempestuous, untameable beast herself so you could say that these paintings of the sea are a kind of collective portrait of Hambling's own tempestuous moods.
But are they any good as paintings? We need to ask this question because Hambling is a very patchy artist take the case of that terrible sculpture of Oscar Wilde that lounges, preening itself, behind St Martin-in-the-Field. It ought to be destroyed immediately. But she can also be very good and this time she is on form. These sea paintings pack a tremendous punch. When we walk back out into the teeming rain of a January morning, we already feel drenched to the skin. So let the rain do its worst. Let Hambling shake her fist at the rain, too.
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