Sublime Sea: Rapture and Reality

The ocean and its seas are a magnificent life-sustaining gift of nature, an alluring yet powerful entity essential to the existence of human and animal life covering over 70% of planet earth. Since ancient times we have been fascinated by the wonders of this voluminous being, relied on it as a source for food, explored with scientific endeavour and used it for recreation and transport. And it is easy to be absorbed in the splendour of the shimmering radiance and mystery it exudes.

Inspired by my own love of the sea, and energised by a recent road trip through Tasmania which drew me to some of the most breathtaking seascapes in the state, ‘Sublime Sea: Rapture and Reality’ called out to me.

James Gillray, The Nancy Packet, 1784, printing ink on paper, 42.5 x 52.2cm. Australian National Maritime Museum Collection. Purchased with the USA Bicentennial Gift Funds. Courtesy Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney and Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, Victoria

Guest curated by Dr Vivien Gaston, at Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery in southeast Victoria, ‘Sublime Sea’ captures the beauty and power of the sea in diverse ways. Themes of Journey, Immersion and the Grotto unfold across three main theatres with a display of over 100 works including painting, sculpture, decorative art and video by contemporary and 19th and 20th-century artists, alongside a selection of museum curios and natural science specimens. In the foyer, Prospero’s Island South West (2016), a large-scale wallpaper work by Melbourne-based artist Valerie Sparks, instantly immerses the viewer in a moody seascape of stormy charcoal skies where the volatile sea lashes the rocky edifice of a Tasmanian landscape.

Moving into the gallery dim lighting and dark-ocean-blue walls set the scene for the narration of intrepid journeys over wild seas with a selection of early works from the likes of Samuel Prout (1783-1852), Oswald Walter Brierly (1817-1894) and James Gillray (1756-1815), to name a few. The Nancy Packet (1784) by Gillray re-lives a confronting and fearful scene of the final moments before a lifeboat throws its occupants into the sea’s gaping mouth sure to be swallowed whole, never to be seen again. In contrast to this vision, on a more tranquil note is Todd McMillan’s By the Sea (2004), a 72-sec video documenting a condensed version of the artist’s 12-hour endurance work, a re-imagination of 19th-century German Romantic landscape painter Caspar David Freidrich’s Monk by the Sea (c.1809). This seemingly brief encounter compels a sense of solitude and contemplation while standing alone at the edge of the sea.

Todd McMillan, By the sea, 2004, single-channel digital video transferred from 16mm film, colour, silent, 1 min 12s. Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney Purchased with funds provided by the Coe and Mordant families, 2006. Courtesy the artist, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney and Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, Victoria

The cooled air in the next room permeates a mild arctic chill with paintings by Thomas Landseer (1793/ 1794-1880) and Isaac Walter Jenner (1836-1902), where glacial landscapes lend awareness to the hostilities of nature and the fate of doomed expeditions to freezing Arctic poles. An enormous taxidermy polar bear commands attention at the far end of the room, while contemporary artists including Rick Amor, Brett Whiteley, Tamara Dean, Brian Robinson and others turn their creative focus to the exploration of human emotion and our interactions with the sea’s infinite underwater worlds and delicate ecosystems.

Dale Chihuly, Violet macchia set with teal lip wraps (1992), blown glass, 13 shell forms, 40.5 x 94 x 86.3cm, largest shell. Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Sydney. Purchased 1993. Courtesy the artist and Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, Victoria

In the third space, an illuminating ‘grotto’ nurtures an enchanting cabinet of curiosities with a vibrant showcase of natural objects, corals, shells, decorative porcelains, sculptures and paintings. An exquisite set of violet tinted jewel-like bowls in the form of shells titled Violet macchia set with teal lip wraps (1992) by Dale Chihuly, take your breath away. Kate Rhode’s Coral vanitas (2008), a sculptural piece composed of red coral adorned with white rabbits and small skeletons, pays homage to the beauty and fertility of nature and the cycle of life and death. While Rupert Bunny’s (1864-1947) Sea Idyllic (c.1891), a chimerical painting of mermaids and merman frolicking on seaweed-salted shores, draws us into the seas mythical realm.

Tim Storrier’s At sea (for Pamela) (2018), Judith van Heeren’s Sea garden with pink sea anemone (2016) and Sea garden with volcano (2017) paintings, and Anne Zahalka’s Sea Bird Colony, Admiralty Rocks with turbulent seas, Lord Howe Island (2019) are also impactful.

‘Sublime Sea: Rapture and Reality’ perfectly illustrates the physical, natural and emotional power of the sea as well as serving to remind us of the human role in climate change.

Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery
Until 23 February 2020