I’m a sporadic swimmer, not a strong or competitive one. During the long periods when I don’t swim, I often think about it.
At the moment I’m in a swim-phase, triggered by an exhibition visit with a friend. A large oil painting by Pissarro caught my eye in the grand, low-lit central gallery at the RSA. It has been lodged in my mind ever since, enticing me into the water. My memory of the painting is of rich vibrant blues taking up much of the foreground, loose patches of turquoise and greeny-blue paint indicating a deep, calm river. The colours and blocks of paint reminded me of Ivon Hitchen’s paintings. I am fascinated by the way in which Hitchen’s combines semi-abstract shapes with a specificity of colour to describe exactly the feeling of the English landscape.
What is strongest in my memory of the Pissarro painting is the feeling of the viewer being placed in the middle of the river, immersed up to the torso, with the deep blues and turquoises flowing around her. Having this painting in my mind has made me think about the way in which art can place you somewhere your body or mind may not otherwise have access to. There is enormous power in that.
Considering other watery paintings I am reminded of Monet’s late lily pond paintings, expansive, immersive works; some of which I have seen at the Orangerie in Paris. The greasy, cloying paint laid down in energetic brush strokes, flicked across the surface in layers to convey a sense of depth. The tone darkening as the water gets deeper and denser. Linear scribbles of pale paint evoking the lightest of water lilies floating on the surface. As a viewer of these large-scale paintings it is difficult to truly get hold of the space that Monet is depicting – we are enveloped and disorientated by it.
Roger Deakin, a great celebrator of wild swimming, describes the act of immersing yourself in an open stretch of water as follows:
‘You are in nature, part and parcel of it, in a far more complete and intense way than on dry land and your sense of the present is overwhelming.’
Since the Pissarro painting has been lingering in my brain I have had a number of outdoor swims, taking advantage of people and places for the opportunity to suspend my body in water.
Back in August I cycled with friends to Threipmuir Reservoir under the western flank of the Pentland Hills. A pleasant ride from the centre of Edinburgh which took us along the canal where we briefly followed the flight line of a kingfisher. I watched as it folded up into a bullet-shape and entered the water diagonally in a perfect dive.
The reservoir was striking, mainly in its situation underneath the purple, heather-clad Pentland hills, yet disappointing in its rectangular shape and uninspiring gravel beaches. Still, I was determined to swim. It wasn’t a warm day so it took some time to pluck up the courage to duck under the slightly murky water. We walked slowly out, our feet encountering unidentifiable slimy-ness under the water and eventually we immersed ourselves. It doesn’t take long for the water to feel warmer than the air around you.
After a few strokes I am aware of watching the world from the water’s surface, imagining what I’m swimming over and past. Occasionally I roll onto my back, immersing my head and ears so that external sounds are muted and a loud glugging noise fills my head.
The sheer exhilaration I have discovered in swimming outdoors is unexpected – when I get out of the water I feel energised and intoxicated. A similar sensation is described in reference to sailing in this Emily Dickinson poem:
Exultation is the going
Of an inland soul to sea
Past the houses – past the headland
Into deep Eternity –
Bred as we, among the mountains
Can the sailor understand
The divine intoxication
Of the first league out from land
A poem beautifully complimented by this striking large-scale oil painting, Antarctic Waters, by Scottish artist Frances Walker which I saw displayed recently at the McManus Museum and Gallery in Dundee. The work relates to the Pissarro painting in the sense that the viewer has a strong sense of being placed centrally in a vast channel of water, this time it is in an Antarctic sea, rather than a rural French river.
Finally here is the Pissarro painting which started this watery meandering and got me back in the open water. Entitled ‘The Marne at Chennevieres’, the digital image does not do the real thing justice but will have to do. I will leave you with this thought on our cultural association with water by contemporary artist Tania Kovats from her book Drawing Water:
‘We all have liquid selves and are subject to the suggestion that the sea is a place of mutation, where fixed forms dissolve in salty waters. The idea of a ‘sea change’ is a poetic understanding of transformation, where the form stays the same but the substance changes.’
And if you get the chance, do have a listen to the BBC radio series broadcast recently entitled ‘The Waterside Ape’, which sheds further light on the reasons that humans have such a strong emotional connection to water.