Images of the sea are risky for painters: It takes a rare artist to surpass the cliché of sand and water and create a work of real beauty. Through January 25, 2009, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., is featuring an exhibit — Seascapes: Tryon & Sugimoto – in which one of the artists succeeds.
“I saw five nights a noble moonrise over a noble beach. I also went to the shore before sunrise and saw the sun rising like Venus from the sea.” American-born landscape painter Dwight Tryon (1849-1925), who wrote those words to Charles Lang Freer, founder of the Freer Gallery of Art, infuses the poetry of his words into the pastels of his canvas. Japanese-born photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto (b. 1948) is less successful in his creations.
Tryon and Sugimoto clearly share a fascination with the sea; artistically, though, that’s where their commonalities end. In the first room of the two-room exhibit, Sugimoto’s six images unfold. The photographer, who lists Marcel Duchamp and the Dada movement as inspirations, explains: “Although the land is forever changing its form, the sea, I thought, is immutable.”
With this in mind, in 1980 Sugimoto set out to photograph the seas, from the Ionian Sea to the Sea of Japan, hoping to show that each sea is immutable by showing that all seas look alike. Essentially, he employs the same compositional techniques for each photo he takes — one technique, for instance, reduces the vivid palate of the sea to degrees of black and white.
The result? Each of the six photos is divided into two equal bands of grey, one for the sea and one for the sky. There are also variations on this theme, six variations to be exact. The sea can be light-grey, dark-grey, opaque-grey, steely-grey, industrial-grey, misty-grey (with luck). You get the picture . . . or the lack thereof.
Though the exhibit is meant to encourage “quiet contemplation,” the only thing this viewer was contemplating was why the curators lined up Sugimoto’s works against a master’s; they are doing Sugimoto no favors. Tryon’s work simply dwarfs Sugimoto’s, both in craftsmanship and in effect.
Tryon’s 22 pastels stand out viscerally against the maroon walls and dim lights of the gallery. The dynamic coast of Ogunquit, Maine, is his muse. In 1906, Tryon departed to the Maine coast, hoping to paint it; instead, he found diversions in fishing by day, and sea-watching by night. When he left, he painted several pastels of the sea from memory. He would return in later years. In these pastels, which have not been on display since 1924, Tryon captures the moods and rhythms of the sea by sunlight, twilight, and moonlight.
In his 1915 pastel titled “Sunrise,” the teal ocean is just stirring from its slumber, with a few waves beginning to break. Those further out take their leads from the ones foaming on the shore. Velvety purples and pink come in incandescent patches along the horizon, anticipating the coming sun. The day breaks peacefully, with the waves.
Most dramatic is the exhibit’s centerpiece. Tryon painted “The Sea: Evening” (1907) from memory after a winter trip to Ogunquit. Unlike his other works, which he revised and layered up to 30 times, he did not alter or modify “The Sea: Evening,” but left it (in his words) “direct and simple.”
The painting itself is haunted with the chill of winter. The waves no longer appear to swing playfully, but give the impression of being at rest. The trace of lively blue has also abandoned the sea, leaving behind a silver coating. The icy water laps softly onto the bare shore. A damp line marks where the ocean comes and goes in its daily rhythm.
Freer, Tryon’s patron, spent two days with “The Sea: Evening,” and ultimately compared it to some of the greatest works of Japanese art. And though Tryon is far less celebrated than his great inspiration, James McNeill Whistler, his depictions of the sea place him among America’s most poetic landscape painters. The music of life is in his work.
– Emily Esfahani-Smith is an intern with National Review and the editor of The Dartmouth Review.