Since its first splash, water has had an amorphous sort of existence. Water in its many forms has all at once been called man’s glory, his downfall, his friend, his enemy, and even his love. Perhaps the paradox that is water can be summed up best in the words of the U.S. Department of the Interior, which labels it “[man’s] immemorial ally and adversary.” Regardless of its complex definition, water has certainly played an integral part in the history of man, and therefore it has woven itself into the most accurate record of man’s history we have: art. It has appeared in the background of portraits, in the forefront of landscapes, in the small cup on the table of a still life, as well as spurting from fountains, traveling through aqueducts, and draining from intricate gutters. In various forms, water has pervaded the artistic world, and it is an extremely important topic to anyone seriously studying art.
When assigned the topic of water, our group took several weeks to sit in dumbstruck silence and say nothing as to how we should approach it. How could we possibly seek to capture the meaning of something so complex in art? Ironically, it was this complexity, this seemingly ungraspable multiplicity that provided the focus of our topic. We felt that water, whether confined to a glass or free to crash and tumble, has been narrowed and imprisoned in stereotypes during the last several decades. With the help of textbooks and high school teachers, people have come to believe that water can only mean purity, new life, and innocence. It now functions solely as a symbol for these types of qualities, while, in reality, these are only a few of the qualities it embodies.
For our project, we wanted to unleash water from the symbolism stereotypers that have for so long held it back. We attempted to see water from all sides through all periods of time in all types of art. We also did not want to limit “art” to paintings and sculptures, but to all creations that started with raw material and skill and, from them, made beauty. The five subtopics we chose, therefore, were five qualities of water which we felt did a decent job of subverting the assumed symbolism and painting a truer picture of water’s complexity: purity, functionality, femininity, narrative, and danger.
Purity, a subtopic studied by Rachel, is a good starting point, mostly because this is what most people assume water signifies. Throughout the semester, Rachel attempted to discover where this assumption came from as well as explore the fact behind the assumption. Water does indeed symbolize purity on many occasions, and Rachel’s goal was to study these pieces of art in their contexts.
The functionality of water, Angelina’s topic, is often overlooked by those studying art. Most people don’t look at practical inventions as pieces of art, but throughout the semester Angelina attempted to see them as such. By examining various uses of water in the cities we visited, Angelina looked past the sometimes rusty or ugly exteriors to see the beauty of organization, logic, and utter practicality. Her study of water’s function in art has led us all to a new understanding of what art can be.
Hannah studied the femininity of water, our third subtopic. This, though conventionally associated with Rachel’s topic of purity, is on its own symbolic level. Women and water have long been associated with each other, and Hannah attempted to find pieces of art in which the two subjects are drawn together to form one picture. By exploring the femininity of water, Hannah explored a different level of water’s deeply symbolic nature.
The narrative of water, studied by Erik, brings another element into our project. By seeking out pieces of art, particularly fountains, in which a clear narrative is told, Erik pulls away from the symbolic nature of water and instead heads into the power of water to tell a story. His topic is unique in that it can lead to all types of stories and is not limited to one mood or genre, as some of our other subtopics are.
Our final subtopic is the danger of water. This focus, studied by Deanna, is interesting because it seems to be in almost direct contrast with our first subtopic, the purity and innocence of water. This was intentional, for we wanted to show—as we said before—the complexity of water; it is fraught with paradoxes. Deanna attempted to find pieces of art in which water acts as a dangerous force, a threat to someone or something else portrayed in the piece. It was fascinating to see this other side of water which is often unrepresented in the studies of art.
Our project was an attempt at broadening our own artistic horizons. We wanted to touch the water, not just stare at it blankly. We attempted to walk 360 degrees around our topic, not merely glance its façade and assume we knew it through and through. We have learned a great deal from studying this ever-shifting topic. We hope you enjoy our gallery. Please feel free to do more than get your feet wet; by all means, dive in deep.
US EPA, Water Office. “Water: Quotes and Facts.” Jperret.com/water. Tripod. Web. 4 Apr. 2012.
Witcombe, Chris. “Water in Art.” Http://witcombe.sbc.edu. Sweet Briar College. Web. 5 Apr. 2012.