Seaweed may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of paintings by John Singer Sargent or Andrew Wyeth, or ornaments from Limoges and Tiffany & Co.
But all of these works of art are part of the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s seaweed exhibit, opening the viewer’s eye to the undulating beauty of marine flora that continues to inspire artists to this day. Let it open.
The exhibition, co-curated by Northeastern professor Maura Coughlin, is titled “Unique Marine Products: Seaweed Cultures,” and will run until Dec. 3 and features paintings, ceramics, scrapbooks, photographs, prints, textiles, 125 works including metal art will be exhibited. From the late 18th century to the 21st century.
“Seaweed continues to inspire people in the art world because it is not only very beautiful, but also has very attractive material properties,” says Coughlin.
For many coastal people, seaweed is used on a daily basis, making it naturally suited for design purposes, she says, and there is a resurgence of interest in seaweed among scientists and farmers. added.
“This is not just a story about the past, but also about how seaweed can be part of a sustainable future,” Coughlin says. She said the exhibit allows viewers to explore “art and culture through an ecological lens.”
dress made of seaweed
Exhibit A might be a small but striking 1880s studio portrait of a woman wearing a dress made of seaweed.
“Maybe it was for a costume party,” said Coughlin, a professor at Northeastern College of Art, Media and Design, who co-curated the exhibit with Naomi Slip, chief curator at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. To tell.
The appeal of seaweed is that “when you first encounter it, it seems very strange, and then you realize that it has attracted widespread interest,” Coughlin said.
People collected seaweed and used it in artwork and decorative designs, Coughlin said. In Victorian times, women pressed delicate seaweed into scrapbooks in the same way they pressed flowers onto paper.
Some of these scrapbooks, which enabled women facing barriers in their scientific careers to become amateur marine botanists, include 19th-century paintings and paintings that explore seaweed harvesting as an artistic theme. It is included in the exhibit along with photographs and illustrations from popular newspapers. in New England, France, and England.
For example, in New England, seaweed was harvested for animal feed, fertilizer, and even in the form of dried eelgrass for insulation in homes.
Monumental painting at the center of the exhibition
The centerpiece of the exhibit is a monumental painting by Clement Nye Swift from the New Bedford Whaling Museum that depicts oxcarts piled high with heavy, wet kelp being pulled and pushed along a beach. I’m drawing.
Swift was an American painter born in Acushnet, Massachusetts in 1846.
Like other American artists of the time, he went to Paris to become a painter, and was copying French artist Rosa Bonheur’s famous plowed landscapes when the Franco-Prussian War broke out. I headed to the International Artists Colony in Pont-Aven, Brittany.
On France’s northwest coast, Swift drew inspiration from seaweed harvests, changing the theme of the original painting to a “very different rural labor scene,” Coughlin says.
According to her, the theme is that of an old-fashioned Breton peasant pushing a heavy wooden-wheeled oxcart, topped by a young woman wearing a mysterious but artistically traditional red handkerchief. , she says any other artist would have reacted enthusiastically.
“I’ve done a lot of research on seaweed harvesting in Brittany. It was an eco-commons, regulated by each town. Living seaweed was a very valuable resource, so there was a lot of research about who could cut it at low tide. “There were rules,” says Coughlin, who has a background in 19th century art and environmental humanities.
Farmers in Brittany also reportedly mixed seaweed and cow dung and burned it as fuel instead of firewood, and also burned kelp to extract iodine ash for glass-making and other purposes.
Tiffany, Limoges, William Morris
“Apart from seaweed’s peasant culture, it also became a very attractive motif in decorative arts, so it’s both high and low culturally,” says Coughlin.
In addition to watercolors by John Singer Sargent and Andrew Wyeth, exhibits include seaweed-inspired sailing trophies, sterling silver, exquisite Limoges porcelain, wallpaper from the William Morris Collection, and pieces from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Includes Tiffany enamels on loaned copper plates. Art museum in New York.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is also loaning another of the exhibit’s highlights, a 4-foot-tall, 145-pound French stoneware vase that appears to be overflowing with seaweed.
“This was an exhibit of Art Nouveau pottery at the 1900 Universal Exposition in Paris,” Coughlin says. “This is real power. It’s difficult to launch something this big.”
The seaweed design is a strikingly contemporary look to several 18th- and 19th-century pieces, including an orange and black Staffordshire pottery set and an early blue and white photograph called a cyanotype by Anna Atkins. is given.
Why seaweed continues to inspire artists
More than 30 lenders are participating in the exhibition, which includes an 84-by-28-inch panel on canvas by Lisa Tyson Ennis that incorporates cyanotype blue, and an Irish moss panel by Chrisann Baker. A contemporary section with artwork such as oil painting panels is on display.
A modern version of the Seaweed Album created by contemporary New Bedford artist Mark Dion is also on display.
Coughlin said beachgoers are well aware of seaweed’s timeless appeal.
“When we walk on the beach, we like to pick things up and look at things. When you start really paying attention to things like seaweed, you realize that this flat, dry thing is alive in the water. You know it was alive, it was something else,” she says.
“This is like having access to the ocean floor, which is still a mystery to us.”
“Seaweeds are very different from land plants. They don’t have roots and don’t produce seeds in the same way. Some cling to rocks, while others float freely,” Coughlin says.
“Sometimes people find them slimy or disgusting, and sometimes they find them incredibly beautiful. There’s this range of colors. And their form is really amazing when you think about it. ” Coughlin says.
She says seaweed is still used today in kelp products such as toothpaste, ice cream and supplements.
As part of the exhibit, the museum hosted a panel discussion featuring scientists who discussed the current and potential role of marine algae, specifically kelp farming, “in thinking about climate change, ocean acidification, and food security.” said Coughlin, who is developing the Northeast’s natural environment. Courses on landscape, ecology, and the Anthropocene in art and design.
“Art and design can tell the story of climate change in ways that create community and encourage activism,” Coughlin says.
On October 5, she will join Slip, artist Mae Babcock, and New Bedford Whaling Museum art historian Marina Wells for a roundtable discussion on the culture and aesthetics of seaweed.
It was Henry David Thoreau who called seaweed “extremely marine and wonderful.”
The New Bedford Whaling Museum proved to be the perfect location for the exhibit, Coughlin said.
“This is an art museum that’s a collection of several smaller museums. Things like a historical society, a whaling museum, and an art collection. It’s a great place to do this interdisciplinary research.”