Wednesday, July 24, 2013


“"There are heroes in the seaweed. There are children in the morning."
--Suzanne, Leonard Cohen. 

I have always had a thing for seaweed.  And I tend to photograph it on almost every beach. 
Stepping into a Tidal Pool at Ruguénez, Brittany, 2006.  

Something about this photo kept my attention: I kept it on my computer screen for a few years, lurking behind a clutter of file icons. Perhaps it's the embodied sensation of stepping into this pool, looking into its indefinite depths, yet distracted by the reflection of me taking this picture that floats on the surface.

A tidal pool near Doonbeg, Co. Clare, Ireland, 2007

And here, too, clarity comes from shadow. Where my shadow falls, like the shadow of the rocks, there is a clear view to the sand below the surface. 

On a new beach, there is the lure of unknown tidal pools, where, along with other sea-life, seaweed forms are framed by the collaboration of rocks and the retreating sea. They are a sort of landscape, or nature-assemblage, that you apprehend from above as you hop along the exposed rocks.

A tidal pool near Doonbeg, Co. Clare, Ireland, 2007

Portivy, June 2013

 Alexandre Séon, La sirene (The Mermaid) 1896.  Musée d’Art Moderne-Saint-Étienne

The intertidal zone is a place of hybrid creatures and sea-people such as the selkies who shed their seal skins to become almost human, or the mermaids who haul out on the rocks. Brittany, like many other Atlantic Celtic places, had its version of mermaid myths: Anatole Le Braz's short story "Le Sang de la Sirène" (The Mermaid's Blood, 1901) tells of the cursed fishermen of the Isle of Sein who suffer the consequences of a mermaid being kept as a wife by an island man. Symbolist painter Alexandre Séon wreathes his siren in sensuous kelp, whose fronds mimic the shape of the waves and the color of her tail. The reddish brown is picked up again on the red sails of a Breton sardine boat that catches her attention.

But seaweed can also be disgusting: when I slip on its slime trying to get to the water, when its fishy damp rotting smell is drawing flies, it seems somewhere between animal and vegetable. It catches other things up in it—and lies tangled on the strand in impure piles that combine waste of many forms in uncanny assortment.  Hiding moisture under its top crust, it reanimates, changes color and is again viscous with each tide. I look up references to seaweed on Cape Cod: descriptions of popular sandy beaches tout the absence of seaweed on the shore. Pure sand: the prim beach aesthetic mimics the shaven beach body, scraped clean of nature.

Jules Michelet describes (with horror) a vast spectacle of rotten seaweed in his widely read History of France (1847), where the coast of Brittany near St Malo seems a veritable wasteland: "by turns, as the tide ebbs and flows, a peninsula and an island, and bordered with foul and fetid shoals where the seaweed rots at will.” This shifting landscape of uncertain bounds is covered by polluting rot that corrupts the shoreline, the indeterminate margins of sea and land. 
This sense of disgust is echoed by travel writer 
Thomas Adolphus Trollope, writing in 1889 on the Point du Raz: "There nothing tells of the work or presence of man save certain huge heaps of sea-weed gathered for manure, which for some hundred yards line the rough path on either side, and speak to one of the senses so very vehemently that we almost thought of abandoning our enterprise and turning in flight. These vast masses of seaweed are left to ferment and decay, by which process their fertilizing effect on the land is much increased; but the process of this improvement produces an odour the most overpoweringly offensive of any I ever experienced."

Yet where some saw (and smelled) rot and decay, many found fertile opportunity. When dead seaweed washed up in abundance on the the Brittany coast, forragers and harvesters went to the limits of the earth, the intertidal zone exposed by the duirnal tides that recede the most at new and full moon and are exceptionally low at the equinoxes. (The tides are exceptionally high there: the average worldwide is just 2 meters but in Brittany this ranges from 5.45 meters at Penmarc’h, to 12 meters in the Bay of Saint-Malo and more than 16 meters in the Bay of Mont-Saint-Michel).
 Artists saw opportunity, too. I started collecting images of seaweed harvesting, especially in Brittany. I saw this painting by Alfred Guillou at a summer exhibition in St. Pol de Léon in 2008. He must have been fascinated with the image of the strapping, bare-armed, seaweed gathering woman.

detail:Alfred Guillou,  Ramasseuse de goémon (Seaweed Gatherer). 1889. Morlaix Museum.

In the 1880s, Guillou worked in Concarneau, on the Brittany coast, where, along with Théophile Deyrolle, he founded the informal "School of Concarneau" and attracted a range of international artists.  This monumental painting positions the powerful body of a working peasant woman, barefoot on the rocks of the shore, hauling her mass of kelp on one shoulder as the waves crash in behind her. Guillou makes much of material contrasts between the whites of her shirt, coiffe and skin against the reddish brown of the seaweed, her skirt and the bit of her hair, visible at the temple. 

 Like many  peasant pictures that bring together the bodies of working women and other "filthy" natural things (like manure or the bodies of animals) Guillou's composition places and naturalizes the body of the harvester in the landscape, attaching its dirty labors to the year’s seasons and attesting to the peasant culture of recuperation.  From the 1860s until well after the first world war, painters repeatedly represented Breton women gathering and burning seaweed.  

Paul Gauguin's 1889 painting is perhaps the best-known version of the genre (I only recently encountered the 1890 Kelp Gatherers below):

Paul Gauguin, The Seaweed Gatherers, 1889.
Museum Folkwang, Essen

Paul Gauguin, Kelp Gatherers, 1890.  Private Collection.
In a letter of 1889 to Vincent Van Gogh, Gauguin writes

What I myself have done most of all this year are simple peasant children,  walking indifferently beside the sea with their cows. But because I don’t like the trompe l’oeil of the outdoors and of whatever else, I try to put into these desolate figures the savagery that I see in them, and that’s in me too. Here in Brittany the peasants have a medieval look about them and don’t appear to think for a moment that Paris exists and that we’re in the year 1889 – quite the opposite of the south. Here everything is rough like the Breton language, very closed-in (for evermore, it seems). The costumes are also almost symbolic, influenced by the superstitions of Catholicism. Look at the back, bodice a cross, the head wrapped in a black kerchief like nuns – in addition the figures are almost Asiatic, yellow and triangular, severe.
What the devil, I want to consult nature too, but I don’t want to take from it what I see there and what comes into my mind. The rocks, the costumes are black and yellow; I can’t put them down as blond and coquettish, can I? Still fearful of Our Lord and the priest, the Breton men hold their hats and all their utensils as if they were in a church; I also paint them in that state and not with a southern verve. At the moment I’m doing a no. 50 canvas, of women gathering wrack at the sea’s edge. They’re like boxes stacked up here and there, blue clothing and black coifs  and this despite the bitterness of the cold. Manure which they gather to fertilize their land, red-brown ochre with ruddy highlights. Pink sands, not yellow, because of the damp probably – dark sea. Seeing this every day I get a kind of gust of wind for life, of sadness and obedience to unfortunate laws. I try to put this gust of wind on canvas, not haphazardly but rationally, perhaps exaggerating a certain rigidity of pose, certain sombre colours etc... All of this is mannered perhaps, but where’s the natural in a painting? 

Émile Bernard, Breton Women with Seaweed, 1892.

The red wrack: "where's the natural?".... 

Gauguin, Sérusier, Bernard and many more repeat the association of Breton peasant women and their iron-red mounds of seaweed.

 An early 20th century painting from the collection in Pont Aven looks almost fauvist in its color range:
André Jolly Les Goemoniers  oil on canvas 1908. 

But the red of André Jolly's painting is no exaggeration.  I shot this red pool at the same beach-- the Pointe du Ragunez--  near Pont Aven in 2006.

I was stunned to see these Matisse paintings from the 1920s at a show in New York in 2013. Dead fish-- perhaps recently caught and landed on the beach-- are spread out on a matt of seaweed, three times over. With the famous cliffs of Etretat (Normandy) in the background (recalling Monet and Courbet and many others), Matisse makes slimy natures mortes, still life groupings in a landscape, absent the labor of fishing and gathering, absent the tourists, sea-bathers and fish-buyers. As if the sea spit this out upon the strand.

 By contrast, Elodie La Villette (1842-1917), and her sister, Caroline Espinet (1844-1910), were painters committed to depicting the entwined human and natural ecologies of the coast.  La Villette lived most of her life in Portivy, on the Quiberon peninsula, in Morbihan. These paintings draw no hard distinctions between the life of those on the shore and on the water.  La Villette often includes those figures who work the low tide, gathering shellfish and seaweed at its ebb.

Elodie La Villette, Larmor-Plage (near L’Orient) 1879

Elodie La Villette, Low Tide, Dieppe (Normandy), 1885
Elodie La Villette,  Low Tide at Portivy

Low tide at Portivy, June 2013

La Villette knew Corot and Jules Breton in Brittany. But unlike Breton's very sanitized and classical laundresses that I wrote about in the post on lavoirs, La Villette was much more interested in showing all sorts of labor on the coast.

Seaweed grows especially well on the rocky coast of southern Finistère.  This chart depicts the zones for various types along the wide littoral zone (the tidal range in Brittany is greater than elsewhere in Europe). As Rachel Carson noted in The Edge of The Sea:

Only the most hardy and adaptable can survive in a region so mutable, yet the area between the tide lines is crowded with plants and animals. In this difficult world of the shore, life displays its enormous toughness and vitality by occupying almost every conceivable niche. Visibly, it carpets the intertidal rocks; or half hidden, it descends into fissures and crevices, or hides under boulders, or lurks in the wet gloom of sea caves. Invisibly, where the casual observer would say there is no life, it lies deep in the sand, in burrows and tubes and passageways. It tunnels into solid rock and bores into peat and clay. It encrusts weeds or drifting spars or the hard, chitinous shell of a lobster. It exists minutely, as the film of bacteria that spreads over a rock surface or a wharf piling; as spheres of protozoa, small as pinpricks, sparkling at the surface of the sea; as Lilliputian beings swimming through dark pools that lie between the grains of sand.


Maturin Méheut (1882-1958), a prolific and talented painter, designer, ceramicist and illustrator was born in Lamballe, Brittany, and became one of the best known graphic artists of the early 20th century. 
In his early years, he collaborated with marine biologists in Roscoff to produce a book (Etude de la mer, flore et faune de la Manche et de l’Océan).  This along with 450 other works were exhibited at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in 1913.  These images come from a very positive review of this exhibition in the journal L’Illustration (20 Dec. 1913).  A century later at the Musée de la Marine, a huge survey of his work was presented.

As in Méheut's work, this underwater botanical illustration makes much of the vitality of living seaweed, while also creating vibrant, decorative harmonies.

Looking down on flattened seaweed at low tide, Portivy, Brittany, June 2013 
William Morris, Seaweed pattern.

One of William Morris's well-known floral patterns comes from seaweed forms.  I am comparing it to a photograph that I took in Portivy, looking down at the wealth of pattern flattened on the sand-- waiting for the tide to return and animate it to three dimensions. With the tide out, the forms are deflated, collapsed into scribbles; buoyed by the sea, their whips and arabesques return. The photo below was taken in 2008, right after swimming from the rocky beach on the Isle de Sein.

In Brittany, popular illustration and later photographic postcards repeat same the scenarios of harvesting, transporting, burning and selling the seaweed ash that intrigued the painters. The ash was sold to traveling buyers, who tested it for its iodine content.  Kelp has the highest level of iodine and was thus the most sought after plant. Iodine was used in glass and other industrial products. Before it could be chemically synthesized, seaweed provided the best source.

And in Ireland, J. M. Synge, who had studied ethnography with Le Braz in Brittany, described Kelp Gatherers on the shore:

It is a remarkable feature of the domestic finance of this district that, although the people are so poor, they are used to dealing with fairly large sums of money. Thus four or five tons of kelp well sold may bring a family between twenty and thirty pounds, and their bills for flour (which is bought in bags of two hundredweight at a good deal over a pound a bag) must also be considerable. It is the same with their pig-farming, fishing, and other industries, and probably this familiarity with considerable sums causes a part, at least, of the sense of shame that is shown by those who are reduced to working on the roadside for the miserable pittance of a shilling a day.

-- J. M. Synge, Travels in Wicklow, West Kerry and Connemara (1910)

And these mythic, heroic figures appear again in the wonderfully bombastic Man of Aran in 1934.

Read Seaweed, part 2.