Water Ripple, from http://www.vraxx.com
I recently read “Passage to Juneau: a Sea and its Meanings” by Jonathan Raban. The book is his account of his solo voyage from Seattle to Juneau through the Inner Passage, describing the landscape, people, and history of the area, and his own “inner passage” as well. At a few points he discusses ocean-inspired art, particularly the traditional art of the Salish, Kwakiutl, Haida, Tsimshian, and Tlingit Indians. “The designs represented creatures of the sea and coast — some familiar, like whales, bears, frogs… some unknown to natural history, fantastic sea-dwelling composites…”
During my own family’s trips to the Northwest and Alaska, I was fascinated by the distinctive style of painting by those tribes, seen on old pieces in museums and by contemporary artists. It never occurred to me to wonder what the origin of the style was. It just “was”. Raban, however, comes up with a plausible explanation.
Raban points out the intimate connection the Coastal tribes had with the sea. They lived on the narrow shores, getting their sustenance from the water and avoiding the forest and mountains. He writes,
“The more I looked at these pictures, the more I saw that Northwest Indian art was maritime in much more than its subject matter. Its whole formal conception and composition were rooted in the Indians’ experience of water… the rage for symmetry, for images paired with their doubles, was gained, surely, from a daily acquaintance with mirror-reflections… The typical “ovoid” shape — the basic unit of composition, used by all the tribes along the Inside Passage — was exactly that of the tiny capillary wave raised by a cat’s-paw of wind, as it catches the light and makes a frame for the sun. The most arresting formal feature of coastal Indian art, its habit of dismembering creatures and scattering their parts into different quarters of a large design, perfectly mimicked the way in which a slight ripple will smash a reflection into an abstract of fragmentary images. No maritime art I knew went half as far as this in transforming events in the water itself into constituent elements of design.”
The fundamental design unit, the ovoid, may be stretched or squashed in dimension, and may be subdivided by even more ovoids. Large compositions often have dozens of them packed together.
“The whole picture…teases the spectator into trying to solve it like a puzzle…instinctively reconfiguring its constituent pieces into a single creature or narrative sequence — yet the creature is usually beyond the ken of conventional zoology, and the story proceeds by strange and contradictory leaps and bounds.”
After discussing examples of wildly different interpretations of a Native blanket design, Raban states,
“The point is that these compositions are infinitely amenable to interpretation, no version of which can be counted final and authoritative. With marvelous stylistic assurance and control, the Indian artists have rendered a world inherently fluid, fragmentary, elusive, and chaotic. Look, it’s a bear; look again, it’s a halibut. This is nature as one meets it in the distorting mirror of the water…It is an art in thrall to ripples and reflections.”
This style of art makes perfect sense to me now. Have you ever had such an epiphany of understanding art as Raban did, contemplating the endless surface of the sea on his solo voyage?