The Art of talking about Art – 13: F for Floods

We thought it might be a good idea to help you keep the conversation around the floods going a little longer by introducing you to 7 iconic paintings that depict the destructive power of nature from (and for) time immemorial.

Despite the Indian media’s best efforts to ignore catastrophe, the floods in Chennai did, finally, make the headlines. Since then, things have gotten better in Chennai and Tamil Nadu, but only a tad. That’s why, we thought it might be a good idea to help you keep the conversation around the floods going a little longer by introducing you to seven (there’s a reason we chose the number 7, which we will get to in the next paragraph) iconic paintings that depict the destructive power of nature from (and for) time immemorial.

In Genesis 9:12–16, God makes the rainbow the sign of his promise to Noah (and, by extension, to all mankind) that He will not flood the whole earth again. And since there are seven colours in the rainbow, let’s take a closer look at seven paintings that capture the destructive power of nature like no other.

Leonardo da Vinci (15 April 1452 – 2 May 1519) – The Deluge Drawings (c1517-8)

Late in his career, Leonardo, disillusioned with the inability of Renaissance Italy to support either his art or his science, became fascinated by the power of water as a natural force to be exploited and feared. A consequence of this state of mind, Leonardo proceeded to focus all his most pessimistic forebodings in a series of drawings of ‘deluges,’ in which he depicted armies, cities, horses, trees, and even mountains swept away by the unleashed fury of storm and flood.

Of Leonardo’s many drawings of deluges made at this time, ten are uniform in size and style, but not in technique – most are in black chalk only, though all are as meticulously as this one, which is finished with the pen to give a remarkably formal, measured quality to the destruction. It is most probable that the deluge drawings were executed during the last couple of years of Leonardo’s life, when he was living in France at the court of Francis I (reign.1515-47).

Master of the St Elizabeth Panels – The St Elizabeth’s Day Flood 1421 (c1490-1500)

The St. Elizabeth’s flood of 1421 was a flooding of an area in what is now the Netherlands; the cataclysm ranks 20th in the list of worst floods in history of humankind. During the night of November 18 to November 19, 1421 a heavy storm near the North Sea coast caused the dikes to break in a number of places and the lower lying polder land was flooded. A number of villages were swallowed by the flood and were lost, causing between 2,000 and 10,000 casualties. The detailed landscapes in these panels are waterlogged quagmires in which settlements are isolated.

In the late medieval Netherlands an artist whose name is forgotten recorded the devastating 1421 flood that for generations to come reminded the Dutch of what could happen if they dropped their guard.

Michelangelo – The Flood (1508-12)

A great artist and good human being must show empathy for others. In this painting, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (March 1475 – 18 February 1564) displays great compassion for the doomed people who cannot escape the waters sweeping away their world. This depiction of the flood from the book of Genesis was one of the first scenes he painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Instead of concentrating on God’s chosen survivor Noah, this radical artist imagines the anguish of all who are doomed to drown. How nice it would be to see art of this kind from any of the high-profile artists in this country.

Francis Danby – The Deluge (c1840)

Danby made his name with epic subjects, often on a large scale. This was his last. The scene is from the Old Testament book of Genesis (also depicted by Michelangelo as part of his paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel). Danby’s interpretation is considered a perverse masterpiece of Romantic art because it seems like he takes dark relish in the horror of it all, luring the mind into a watery world of blues, blacks and greens, with eerie lightning that exposes Noah’s ark in a distant flash of cold silver, while a golden angel weeps.

Francis Danby (16 November 1793 – 9 February 1861) was an Irish painter of the Romantic era. He was known for his imaginative, dramatic landscapes. Danby initially developed his imaginative style while he was the central figure in a group of artists who have come to be known as the Bristol School.

Claude Monet – Flood Waters (1896)

Oscar-Claude Monet (14 November 1840 – 5 December 1926) was a founder of French Impressionist painting, and the most consistent and prolific practitioner of the movement’s philosophy of expressing one’s perceptions before nature. Monet (not to be confused with (not to be confused with Édouard Manet, another painter of the same era) is not really known for his apocalyptic impressions of nature, but in this particular painting he doesn’t hold back. He floods the landscape, everything is lifeless and abandoned, the trees are ghosts and no people intrude on the spectral, post-human beauty.

Hokusai – The Great Wave (from Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji) (c1829-32)

The Great Wave off Kanagawa, also known as The Great Wave or simply The Wave, is a woodblock print by the Japanese ukiyo-e artist Hokusai. It was published sometime between 1830 and 1833 in the late Edo period as the first print in Hokusai’s series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. It is Hokusai’s most famous work, and one of the best recognized works of Japanese art in the world.

It depicts an enormous wave threatening boats off the coast of the prefecture of Kanagawa. This is not exactly a picture of a flood – but it is certainly apocalyptic. Hokusai’s fishermen tremble in their little boats beneath a mighty onrush of water. While it probably depicts a massive swell, it is hard not to see the Great Wave as a tsunami heading towards land – a destructive force that is also profoundly beautiful.

Thomas Cole – The Subsiding of the Waters of the Deluge 1829

Another representation of the biblical flood, in this one by the American romantic artist Cole, the waters of the biblical flood start to ebb away, leaving behind nothing as it was. A harsh, yet glorious, sunlight reveals smashed trees scattered on the bedrock of a depopulated earth. Everything has been purified. The world is new again – an empty, shining blank slate.

Thomas Cole (February 1, 1801 – February 11, 1848) was an American artist and is regarded as the founder of the Hudson River School, an American art movement that flourished in the mid-19th century.

Finally, this is for those of you who live north of the Vindhyas and are STILL wondering what, who or where this thing called Chennai is, here’s a little factoid for you to store and bring up the next time the city does manage to make the news: Chennai (formerly known as Madras), on the Bay of Bengal in eastern India, is the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu and is home to Fort St. George, built in 1644 and now a museum showcasing the city’s roots as a British military garrison and East India Company trading outpost. Vannakam (it means welcome in Tamil).

Previous Editions:

Update: We have compiled the entire series of blog posts on The Art of Talking About Art in one place. To read other editions of the series, click here.

Avinash Subramaniam

Avinash has been an advertising writer, fiction writer, poetry writer, freelance writer and serial wronger. Other roles he has been in include those of an editor, brand builder, and teacher. His interests include advertising, scrabble, body building, chess, cinema, making money, reading, internet culture, cricket, photography. To hear him air his thoughts, follow him on Twitter @armchairexpert.


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