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The Invisible Depths of the Gulf Stream by Winslow Homer


Somewhere off Key West, a hurricane-battered sloop drifts, dismasted, in rough seas. A shirtless black man lies on his dangerously angled deck, staring at something beyond the frame of the picture. He has the muscular beauty of classical statuary, the stoic resignation of a fallen gladiator facing death. And death draws near: lashing towards us is the waterspout that will surely capsize his boat. In the shaded foreground, sharks turn, bordering on frenzy; one of them – a gaping-mouthed monster rising from the depths – seems about to rush through the picture frame.

As far back as I can remember, “The Gulf Stream” (1899; reworked by 1906), the iconic painting at the heart of Winslow Homer: Cross Currents at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (April 11 to July 31, 2022), played an enigmatic but powerfully evocative role in my personal mythology. It’s a deeply versatile and dark work, which explains its haunting charm and shifting meanings from 1906, when the Met acquired it, to the present day.

For Homer, the deeper meaning of “The Gulf Stream” was, he believed, depth. “I’ve painted over the picture since it was at Phila and made it much better – (more deep sea water than before),” he wrote in a 1900 letter quoted in the catalog of the exhibition. Its capitalization, for emphasis, hints at deeper symbolic meanings.

Nevertheless, Homer, like most artists, was stubbornly hostile to interpretations of his work. Gulf of Mexico, traces the contours of the east coast of the United States, and ultimately splits in two on the crossing, heading towards Northern Europe on the one hand and West Africa on the ‘other.

But as exhibition co-curator Stephanie L. Herdrich points out in her catalog essay, Homer’s insistence that “the subject of this image is understood in his title” [overemphatic italics his] and that “the boat and the sharks” are “matters of very little importance” is contrary to the evil. As an illustrator for Harper’s Magazine, he had recorded the front-line skirmishes and camp life of Union troops during the Civil War. Vacationing in the Bahamas the following years, he had documented, in sunny watercolors brilliant with irony, the chasm of race and class separating the white elite from the black underclass of the islands, for whom abolition meant no little more than exchanging the whip of slavery for the servitude of sharecroppers.

Winslow Homer, “A Garden at Nassau” (1885), watercolour, gouache and graphite on wove paper. 14 1/2 x 21 in. (courtesy Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago and Art Resource, NY)

In “A Garden in Nassau” (1885) and “Rest” (1885), poor black Bahamians look longingly at the paradise gardens of the wealthy, fortified against them by whitewashed walls topped with sharp shards of glass like shark teeth. Homer started working on “The Gulf Stream” in 1899, the year Rudyard Kipling vindicated colonial ambitions in “The White Man’s Burden”, the year after the Spanish-American War established American dominance in the West Indies, and amid a white backlash from the South against Reconstruction gains characterized by Jim Crow laws and Klan night terrors. The deck of the wrecked boat is littered with stalks of sugarcane, shorthand for an exploitative industry based on slave labor.

It’s hard to imagine Homer watching a black man adrift in a sea of ​​horror at the turn of 19e century, a period that historians consider the nadir of race relations in this country, and seeing nothing but the river under the sea.

Conversely, the Gulf Stream is the last something that comes to mind when we look at Homer’s painting. Identity politics dominates our moment of racial reckoning, white supremacist reaction, and white anxiety about America’s Browning. Herdrich is in tune with our times, reading “The Gulf Stream” through the lens of colonialism, imperialism and, of course, race.

The Gulf Stream had been essential to human trafficking, accelerating the transport of slaves across the Atlantic. In Homer’s time, chattel slavery and sharks were intertwined in the public mind. One of the avowed influences of the picture, it turns out, was JM Turner’s 1840 painting “Slave Ship (Slaves Throw Dead and Dying Overboard, Typhoon Comes)”, a nightmarish evocation of the murder of 130 sick or dying Africans – thrown overboard in chains, drowned or eaten by sharks – by the captain of the British slave ship Zong so that he could file an insurance claim for the human “cargo” lost at sea.

Herdrich uses Afrodiasporic and African-American experiences as magnifying glasses to reveal new ways of looking at a painting whose depths we thought we had plumbed — yet another sign that the stately, tradition-bound Met is slowly but determinedly turning. to confront the hard truths of American history and the incendiary questions of our time. (The museum’s decision to moderate a dialogue between “The Gulf Stream” and the works commenting on it elsewhere in the American Wing by Kara Walker, Kerry James Marshall, and other contemporary black artists, is, as is its 1873 recontextualization of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux sculpture “Why Born Enslaved?” in “Fictions of Emancipation: Carpeaux Recast”, timely and bold, transforming the old into the new by restoring the lost historical and contemporary context.)

And it’s not too soon: it’s been more than two decades since the New criterion Art critic and conservative culture warrior Robert Kimball has issued a fatwa against politically correct renditions of innocent seascapes that, until left-leaning academics got their hands on, had been amused, caring of their own shark-infested business. He was particularly angered by a 1989 essay on “Le Gulf Stream” whose author, art history professor Albert Boime, was “more concerned with declaring his correct attitudes on race than with appreciating the painting. of Homer in his own words”.

It’s not Incorrect attitudes about race that make Kimball squirm, but race, period. He prefers not to discuss the black man in the play, even though Homer’s decision to place a black man at the center of his drama, and not portray him from the perspective of the white gaze, with his caricatures of minstrel and its racist sentimentality, but as the doomed fisherman saw himself – dignified, strong, resolute in the face of certain death – was nothing less than radical in 1899. Writing in 1935, Alain Locke, a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance, undoubtedly had the “musculature and physical power” of Homer’s black protagonist “broken the tradition of the cotton patch and the back porch” and “began the artistic emancipation of the subject Negro”.

Of course, neither Kimball nor Met curators Herdrich and Sylvia Yount explain subjective readings, largely because both are combatants on the battlefield of identity politics, but also because the subjective meaning we give to a work of art does not lend itself to the outside intervention of critics and conservatives. At its most powerful psychologically, subjective interpretation is deeply personal, translating our lived worlds into the secret symbolism of our neuroses, traumas, fetishes and obsessions. The deeper meanings of such sensations are often inaccessible even to us, shadows spinning in the unconscious.

Winslow Homer “Undertow” (1886), eye on canvas, 29 13/16 x 47 5/8 in. (courtesy Clark Art Institute)

Looking at “The Gulf Stream”, what do I see? One of those political allegories that ends Kimball’s bow tie, of course: a parable about American democracy in a stormy sea, threatened on all sides by white supremacists, the impending overthrow of Roe vs. Wadethe election of opportunist demagogues like JD Vance by right-wing billionaires like Peter Thiel, the assault on Congress from within by nihilistic trolls like Marjorie Taylor Green, the terrifying metastasis of a Punisher police culture that has no answerable to no one and brutally hostile to blacks and black people. brown people and anyone left of the Proud Boys.

But that’s just my historically literate, politically engaged self – my public-facing self, if you will – encountering Homer’s painting in a cultural context, at a historical moment, and reading it in that light. My subjective impressions, on the other hand, have little or nothing to do with any of those issues and everything to do with when I nearly drowned off La Jolla.

Caught in a rising tide, struggling to exhaustion, I decided to give up, to be “trapped…under an arm” of a “mother gray wave”, like the boy in Kipling’s Brave Captains, who, when “the great green closed in on him… quietly fell asleep”. Letting myself sink, down the water column, away from the noise and the sun, I opened my mouth to swallow the sea. assistance. Help came, in the form of lifeguards on surfboards, who towed me to shore, hooked to a plastic float.

I have never forgotten what it was like to be suspended in the bosom of the sea, waiting for it to wrap me in its cold embrace.

Winslow Homer, “Norteaster” (1895; reworked 1901), oil on canvas, 34 1/2 x 50 in. (courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Stare at the Pacific long enough, as I did during the endless summers of my youth in San Diego, and you will feel your sense of yourself diminish to a pinprick and, ultimately, engulfed, like Pip the cabin boy. Afro-American. at Melville Moby-Dick. He falls overboard and is rescued, but not before his time adrift, alone in a measureless immensity, has driven him mad: “The sea had mockingly held up his finished body, but drowned the infinity of his soul.”

Did Homer, who spent so much of his life staring at the ocean – in Gloucester, Massachusetts; in Cullercoats, England (on the North Sea, near Newcastle); in the Bahamas, in Cuba, in Bermuda, in Prouts Neck, Maine — was trying to capture: the feeling of losing your soul in the deep blue sea?

His enthusiasm for having “much improved” the painting by adding “more Deep Sea water than before” betrays the creative fervor of an artist grappling with a paradox: How can you reveal the unseen depths of a thing if you can see is its ever-changing surface? (The Gulf Stream, remember, is a river of warm water beneath the surface of the ocean, its shores and bottom bounded by cooler water.) Yet somehow , in “The Gulf Stream”, he does just that. It is the work of a man who knew that the sea is strange, not a being but inevitably a presenceindifferent to you, to me and to all mankind, its crashing waves and hissing foam the untranslatable speech of leviathans, its unfathomable depths the last refuge of mysteries.