You could say Monet started it. In 1881 he painted Waves Breaking in which there were no other elements but the sea. Before that, while the sea and sky appeared often enough, it was background. You can see it in the vases of the Ancient Greeks, the mosaics of the Romans, in Chinese Porcelain but, in all these, the important bit tends to be the boat, the dolphin or the fisherman, not the waves themselves.
Much later, in the mid 19th century when the sea starts taking centre stage, the supporting cast is still very much present. The Great Wave of Kanagawa is one of the best known images of the sea, reproduced in millions of posters. Even here, the boats are caught up in the engulfing tsunami. Mount Fuji is in the background. Similarly, while that great marine artist Turner, occasionally concentrated on the movement of the water, more usually there was action, rocks, fires, shipwrecks, drownings.
Then Monet spent the summer of 1881 in Normandy, looking at the sky, the sea and the waves; and found in them enough to paint. He was followed by Ivan Aivazovsky whose earlier seascapes also involved human drama, but who, in 1898, produced Between the Waves which pared down the composition until only the waves remained.
After that, sea paintings became common enough; Gerhard Richter produced quite a few so did L.S. Lowry, creating works far more interesting than his stick men. Other artists followed suit and seas with and without waves started appearing in every conceivable colour; you can get multi coloured seas on jigsaws or buy pleasant enough sea paintings on Etsy or from your local gallery. The restless sea has become a cliche; and with over hundred years of artists trying to pin it down, categorise it, draw out its essence, you would have thought there was little left to explore.
Cuban artist Yoan Capote’s exhibition which has just opened at the Ben Brown Gallery in Mayfair has proved that to be wrong. At first glance his seascapes appear reminiscent of Monet’s works, representational, depicting nothing more than the waves of the sea, the sky and a horizon line.
The thirteen paintings are in mainly sombre shades; the glowering sky is textured and thick with paint and at first the sea appears the same. Light and shadow, waves caught in motion. Then you notice the fish hooks and the picture changes.
The hooks, thousands of them, vicious things, are what provides the detail and outline of the waves but they are also a reminder of the business of those who make a living from the sea and the fish that are hidden. Most of all they emphasise the sea is a dangerous place, as indeed it must have seemed to Capote who as a young boy would have looked towards the horizon thinking of the world beyond, from which he was imprisoned and isolated by water. Look closely and you also notice the the shadows the hooks cast on the wall, as if the sea were casting shadows on the inhabitants of the islands.
Part of what makes these works so appealing is the contrast between the long view, where the image appears restful and beguiling, and the close up where you become acutely conscious of its treachery. These paintings are more than just a reaction to the particular political situation in which Capote grew up. There is a universality about them; the yearning for the unobtainable.
Yoan Capote Isla is showing at the Ben Brown Gallery, 12 Brooks Mews, London W1K 4DG until 29 January.