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Cecily Brown Oinops 2016-2017 signed and dated on the verso oil on linen 154.9 x 180.3 cm. 61 x 71 in. © Cecily Brown. Courtesy the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery

Cecily Brown Oinops 2016-2017 signed and dated on the verso. Oil on linen, 154.9 x 180.3 cm. © Cecily Brown. Courtesy the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery

All at sea at Hastings Contemporary

Hastings Contemporary opened 10 years ago on the Stade, right next to the beach that hosts Europe’s largest beach-launched fishing fleet and where fishermen have been launching and landing their boats for over 1,000 years. It seems apt, therefore, to celebrate those 10 years with the exhibition Seafaring. HOT’s Lauris Morgan-Griffiths was delighted to explore.

It is a mixed show of paintings, drawings, cartoons, prints, lino and woodcuts by a variety of artists – some well-known, others not so much, but a real celebration of the sea and those people whose lives are lived on and around it. The fishermen know the sea and respect it – they know what it is like, what it can do, how it can be benign and beautiful and turn in a trice into a raging monster.

The gallery also has had its own eventful journey, opening as the Jerwood Gallery and later changing to Hastings Contemporary. The voyage may be unpredictable, but it sails on.

The exhibition includes shipwrecks, leisure, voyages, migrants, working people and even sea creatures. With a mixed show like this, with so many great images from great artists, I can only give a glimpse of it. However, a useful tip, and one I was given some years ago, is to literally walk around the gallery, and when at the end double back and study the few works that have really stood out, really look at them and take in painting style, technique, meaning, things you would have missed if just passing from one image to the next.

Richard Eurich Survivors from a Torpedoed Ship 1942 © Tate

Richard Eurich Survivors from a Torpedoed Ship
1942 © Tate

In this Seafaring exhibition, intelligently curated by James Russell, you can see the full gamut of life at sea. Russell, who also curated last year’s  successful Seaside Modern at Hastings Contemporary, says: “From trawlermen to submariners, migrants to merchant seamen, people throughout the ages have shared the experience of being at sea. Seafaring explores the perils and pleasures of life at sea, while at the same time taking visitors on an art historical voyage from the Romantic age to the present.”

Robert Tavener, Sussex Boats and Nets 1971 linocut © Government Art Collection

Robert Taverner, Sussex Boats and Nets 1971 linocut © Government Art Collection

Russell is an intelligent, curious curator and a significant story teller both in the hang as well as in the accompanying art labels – which  are succinctly informative. They give the history and stories of the paintings: Alfred Wallis’ depiction of a particular shipwreck near St Ives and the resulting survivors of the rescue crew; Richard Eurich’s  Survivors from a Torpedoed Ship (1942) where three men cling to an upturned boat, the man in the middle clutching his fellow survivors, keeping them on board. Sadly, however, he was the one who did not survive.

A fascinating story of ship’s camouflage is illustrated by Dazzle Ships. Dazzle abstract patterns were painted on ships in wartime to confuse the enemy as to the direction of travel. It apparently was not a successful ploy but was initially invented by traditional ship painters and interpreted in painted compositions  by modernist artists like Edward Wadsworth.

I was impressed by the juxtaposition in the downstairs galleries of Cecily Brown’s Oinops, which is inspired by others who have gone before her, with Delacroix, Gericault  and Turner and their romantic, powerful depictions of shipwrecks, the perilous seas, survivors and bodies thrown this way and that. Brown’s energetic paintings paying homage to the great masters deserve attention; they change as you examine them closely – is that a figure or part of the ship? What looks like an abstraction looms into focus and retreats back into tableau.

I also loved a cheery little sketch by Ronald Searle of the 287th Field Company Royal Engineers at the early stages of the war before the reality of conflict set in and cheerfulness evaporated. He was imprisoned in Changi Prison,  and then put to work on the notorious Siam-Burma Death Railway where over 12,000 allied prisoners died. His drawings amazingly survived. He apparently drew constantly, even when near death.

There is a colourful triptych, Emigrants, which I particularly liked, painted by Peter de Francis, Professor of Painting at the Royal College of Art, of some men he met in Algeria who were bound by boat for another African country.

Peter de Francia The Emigrants 1964-6 © Tate

Peter de Francia The Emigrants 1964-6 © Tate

I also enjoyed seeing different subjects from familiar artists: rather than Elizabeth Frink’s horses and dogs, she has painted sea birds; Ravilious, deviating from his familiar landscapes, painted what he had hoped might be published as a child’s colouring book, pictures of working seamen and their equipment used in detecting foreign boats and submarines.

Maggi Hambling has painted an affecting image, 2016, of an upturned boat. It looks small and vulnerable, sinking just below the surface. No sign of any living thing, cargo or baggage left behind, there is nothing but the boat and the waves rolling over, invading it. A poignant painting.

It is certainly a  show to see, to take your time over, it is informative in so many ways. I can only touch the surface of what is to be discovered in an enlightening exhibition.

Seafaring is at Hastings Contemporary, Rock-a-Nore, Hastings TN34 3DW, until 25 September. Open Wednesday-Sunday and bank holidays, 11am-5pm.

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Posted 21:53 Wednesday, May 11, 2022 In: Visual Arts

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