Monograph published to coincide with the launch of
P&O Cruises Britannia
Published 2015 by Anomie Publishing
‘The true source of art’, wrote the German Romantic painter, Caspar David Friedrich (1744 – 1840),‘is our heart … a picture that does not spring from this source is nothing but affectation. Every genuine work of art is conceived … from an inner compulsion of the heart of which the artist himself often remains unconscious.’
Areas of light, contrasting with those of darkness, have been used in painting since before the Renaissance. Light has fascinated artists, philosophers, scientists and seekers after the ineffable and the transcendent. It embodies notions of hope and, throughout the history of western art, the experience of the divine. Darkness, on the other hand, has traditionally been connected to the negative.
Not even the most rational and secular mind can escape the mythical and mystical impact of light. In winter the sun is too weak to keep plants alive. Nature is reborn only when the sun returns in spring and obliterates the months of darkness. Deep within all human consciousness light is experienced as the essence of life. In early Christian paint- ing light signified the heavenly, while the Impressionists worked to capture its fleeting nature on objects and figures. In Chinese philosophy yin & yang symbols, designated as black and white segments of a whole, symbolise how apparently opposing forces – night and day, male and female – are actually complementary and interdependent in the natural world.
It is these dualities that find expression in this new series of work by Sarah Medway. Although resolutely abstract and informed by the sumptuous decorative qualities of the Austrian Secessionist painter, Gustav Klimt (1862 – 1918), as well as by the mark-making of Japanese woodcuts, Sarah Medway’s paintings take their lyricism from the landscape and the natural world. For this new commission for P&O Britannia, the largest and most glamourous cruise ship built to date, she has made 56 oil paintings that measure from 60 cm to 183 cm square to be hung in the aft of the ship on the cabin decks and in the public rooms. The sea is a recurring theme. Not only does it imply the amniotic element of birth and renewal – as in baptism – but it also signifies a voyage. The journeys hinted at are both actual, as in the case of those travelling by ship, and symbolic, as in the myth of Jason and the Argonauts or C.S. Lewis’s allegory, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where it is equally a quest and a symbol of self-realisation.
In one of the most potent paintings, Stars and Sleet, the dark tones are broken by cold bursts of starlight and frozen rain, which illuminate the murky night. It is a powerful, lonely painting where we feel ourselves to be small and vulnerable, adrift and lost on the black ocean. The painting leads the viewer’s eye from the flickering movement of sleet and glinting stars into unknown nocturnal depths. In the Nightscape series the darkness is never solid, never totally unremitting. The anthracite hues are ruptured by the reflec- tion and refraction of light shimmering on water. Patterns weave across the opaque surface to form a complex tapestry and glow, jewel-like as stained glass windows, in the gloom of a Gothic cathedral.
Sarah Medway continually investigates the possibilities of her chosen medium with a wide range of brushes of differing shapes and sizes. She also draws with oil sticks directly onto the canvas. These areas are often softened by the use of a rag in order to diffuse the colour. The textured lozenges and discs, juxtaposed against the underlying smooth surfaces, create a veil. There is a sense that if it could be gently drawn back meaning would, somehow, be revealed. Yet like the lambent light cast from the windows of passing ships and distant stars, these images are fragile, inchoate and fleeting. What is evoked is not so much documentary fact as an emotional mood; a way of seeing. The sentiment of the sublime, according to the philosopher Kant, carries within it both pleasure and pain. Within everything we can find its opposite. These paintings articulate states of darkness and grief, as well as optimism and redemption, for which there are no words, only feelings.
Emotion is expressed through shape and colour. The pale pink blush of morning arrives as an epiphany at the end of a long night in the Dawn Tide paintings. Each day starts anew with fresh hope and new possibilities. Nothing is static. Everything is movement and flux. Continually different, continually renewed. The worlds created appear to have no borders but to expand way beyond the limits of the canvas. In the breaking dawn we understand something of the retreating night.
In contrast to the dark tonalities of Shadow Play and the soft nascent light of Spring Calm II, the canvases Sunset – Warm and Sunset – Cool pulse with burnished light. Their richness evokes the sumptuous mark-making of Klimt’s opulent gilded surface in Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer and his most famous painting, The Kiss. The rich mosaics of Venice and Ravenna that inspired his gold technique and Byzantine imagery are mirrored in Sarah Medway’s marks and, here, translated into her own painterly language. In contrast to the cool freshness and luminosity of her Nordic Light paintings, these sunset canvases burn with Mediterranean warmth. The nets of yellow, bronze, gold and complementary blues vibrate so that the juxtaposed dots and marks allow the viewer’s eye to blend the colours optically. Born by the sea in a place with the sea in its name, Seaton Carew, in the north east of England, Sarah Medway spent her formative years on the north Norfolk coast. It was there that her perception was honed by the wide skies and the effect of continually changing light on water.
Most of us hold within us a sense of some idealised unnamed place, a longing for some- where that we unconsciously recognise as special and feels like home. In these paintings Sarah Medway has found visual equivalents for this elusive state of desire. The sea with its tides, ebbs and flows is endlessly reflected in the mirror of the sky. Light and weather change so that what we see is always different yet, somehow, always the same, as the waves roll on into an infinite future.