The (wo)men and the sea: a love story

Date posted: 30 May 2018

Art began with a fish still life. Blue is the most loved colour of all. The gentle curvature of a wave is the natural antidote for the artificial geometric line we impose on ourselves. The ocean is the best synonym for freedom, the unknown and the uncontrollable forces of nature.

CUEVA DE LA PILETA (25 000 BC)

What looks like an abstract drawing in a contemporary gallery was really created 25,000 years ago by a Paleolithic man or woman applying black pigment with bare hands to a stone wall. You can find it in the cave of La Pileta, in the South of Spain. Discovered in 1905 by José Bullón Lobato, who was looking for bat “fertiliser”, the artwork was first explored by local historian W. Verner six years later.

Since then new galleries have been discovered with over 400 samples of cave paintings and engravings depicting animals and hunting scenes. Pileta’s “Black Fish” is hidden in the deepest part of the cave, the so-called “Fish Chamber.” Its dynamic outlines reveal the fish’s (probably a halibut) basic anatomy: simple lines guide us from the boldly marked gills on the right, past the pair of small pectoral fins along its arched belly to the distinctive shape of the caudal fin on the left. Its form stretches out horizontally, in what appears to be a blueprint for the typical Western perspective (as opposed to Chinese and Japanese art, in which the subject is arranged vertically) developed many millennia later.

FRANS SNYDERS, THE FISH SHOP (dated 1618-1621)

FRANS SNYDERS, THE FISH SHOP (dated 1618-1621)

Next to fruits and vegetables, poultry and meat stalls, fish market views became a popular genre in the 16th and 17th century. In European port cities like Antwerp, the demand for new paintings rose with the emerging class of rich merchants, not just portraits and sacred art but highly decorative images of people in taverns, domestic life and market scenes.

With his oil on canvas Fish Shop (1618-1621), Antwerp-born artist Frans Snyders reflects his clientele’s contemporary taste. A crying seal in the middle foreground catches the viewer’s attention: it isn’t just the only living animal amongst dead and partly portioned fish and shellfish, it also lets our gaze wander to the porpoise it sits on and the pair of turtles next to it. In this period, they were commonly found on the menu in the Lowlands and England.

FRANK GEHRY, GOLDEN FISH SCULPTURE EL PEIX (dated 1992)

FRANK GEHRY, GOLDEN FISH SCULPTURE EL PEIX (dated 1992)

As part of the Olympic Marina developed in 1992, Frank Gehry’s ergonomically designed 56m long and 35m high metal structure flanks the Hotel Arts in Barcelona. Like its natural prototype, the man-made construction reflects the light in its golden scales creating a unique viewing experience depending on the angle of the sun and current weather conditions.

It is that light-inflicted glow that reminds us of the gleamy skin of a fish in the water transforming this rigid abstraction into an organic shape and ultimately bringing this colossal sculpture to life. Gehry’s El Peix claims the space, transforming its surroundings into an underwater world, with us becoming pilot fish immersed in the deep blue sea.

This article was written by Isabel Hildebrandt, for our winter 2017 membership magazine ‘Marine Conservation’. If you’d like to receive our fantastic quarterly magazine straight to your door, you can become a member from as little as £3.50 per month.

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