Advent in Art 06: Love as Strong as a Boat, as Heavy as an Oar

Sarah O'Brien
Sunday, 17 December 2006

“Love as Strong as a Boat, as Heavy as an Oar”, Jeffrey Harris 1977-1978. Oil on Board. Collection of the Dowse, Lower Hutt

Advent in Art 2006, Week Three. Presentation by Sarah O'Brien.

Jeffrey Harris is a New Zealand artist, currently working in Dunedin.  He is the first artist we have used in an Advent in Art series where we had to track him down to get his permission to use the piece of art!  Harris was born in 1949 in Akaroa, in the South Island.  He grew up in Banks Peninsula amongst an immediate family who did not encourage his artistic leanings, although he was encouraged by his grandmother to draw.  He moved to Dunedin and worked in a fabric store, while teaching himself about art from books in the public library.  Harris actively sought out mentors in the art world, and he was at various times encouraged and mentored by Michael Smither, Ralph Hotere and Colin McCahon.

As as result of his early artistic learning being books about European art, European artistic influences are strong in his earlier work.  He speaks himself about admiring and referencing Durer, particularly in his detailed self portraits and in his portrayal of objects with symbolic meanings.  He has expressed admiration that Durer surrounded himself in self portraits with objects charged with meaning.  Harris has described his style of painting during this period as expressionistic, romantic, symbolic, primitive.

The work that we are looking at is called “Love as Strong as a Boat, as Heavy as an Oar”. It was painted during 1977-1978 using oil on board.  It is a large work – 1233 x 3117mm – 1.2 metres high x 3.1 metres in length, in 3 separate panels, known as a triptych.

The background leading up to Harris' painting of this work is a painful one.  He and his then wife Joanna Paul had 2 daughters at the time, Magdalena and Imogen.  Imogen was only 1 year old when she died in 1976.  Over the next 2 years Harris poured out his grief in a physical way onto canvas and board and paper in meditations on Imogen's grave, suffering, the crucifixion.  Quote attributed to Picasso is apt: “A painter paints to unload himself of feelings and visions.”  Harris himself has said that he paints and draws “to keep the chaos at bay”.  Harris had  been exploring Christian imagery in his paintings for many years, particularly the crucifixion.  After Imogen's death the themes of suffering, grief and dissonance grow more acute.  He introduced the triptych format, which, with its built in cuts / double interruption emphasises the tone of collision and dissonance.  The triptych format has predominantly been used in art in religious altarpice paintings.

In this painting, the first thing that I noticed was the triptych format, with quite different styles of painting – the outer panels are very two-dimensional, with the figures, whether human or animal, all having blank faces.  Compare this with the central panel where the faces of the figures are rendered, some crudely and some delicately.  The overt Christian image of the Holy Family fills the frame, crammed right up to the horizon line within a circle, itself within a riot of colliding colours and other symbols – boats, swords, serpents, cups, mirrors, trees.  White-sailed boats journey across the bright blue horizon of all three panels.  Boats in Harris' symbolic language represent journey.  The journey from birth to death seems to flow through these three panels, and perhaps the reverse – from death to hope for Harris in his grief process.  Boats can represent a transition from life to the after-life.  The boats in all three panels sail on calm, vibrant blue waters.  I would like to interpret this as a message of hope for the journey.

The first panel depicts a figure of a woman reaching down from the sky, passing a child to a waiting pair of red-sleeved hands.  A sword pierces her belly and eggs and blood pour out.  The seems to me to be referring to the conception/annunication/birth of Christ.  To the left of the woman a bowl of water is being tipped out by a pair of arms in stocks with an open book resting on the stocks.  A snake swirls through the scene – next to a ladder and a kite.  At the bottom of the panel a bird swoops upwards, next to a lit candle in a box within a box.  I found such a proliferation of symbols to be quite cryptic and confusing.  To the right is an octagon containing a small image of a man releasing a bird from a box, with three onlookers, one who could be an adult Jesus, holding his head in despair.

The main image contains an encircled Holy Family with St Anne and the Magi, which I will come back to in more detail.

The third and final panel in the triptych contains what appears at first glance to be a traditional Trinity image – it reminds me of Masaccio's Trinity in Santa Maria Novella, which has the Holy Spirit Dove hovering over God the Father, who in turn has arms outstretched over Jesus on the cross.  This trinity, however, is twisted with a snake in place of the dove and the crowned figure of Christ being beheading with a sword and seeming to holding the Christ child himself.  The sword clearly shows Jesus' death, with the Father figure taking the crucified form. Harris often represented alternatives to the cross in gallows, nooses – indeed a small noose is held by a floating figure in the central panel. There is another small octagon in the bottom right of the panel, mirroring the one in the first panel.  This one shows a figure holding a flag, again with three onlookers, one presumably Jesus. 

Coming back to the central panel, the first thing to note is that, as in the traditional use of the triptych, the central panel is much larger than the two side panels, making us linger longer to look at it.  The depth of scale,  level of detail and riot of symbols are all more intense in this panel.  The central panel is boundaried by the side panels depicting (among other things!) Jesus' conception and birth in the first panel, and his death in the final panel.

The central image appears to be Mary, dressed in yellow with a crown hovering over her head, holding the infant Christ, who is holding a boat and a cup or flute to his lips.  The face of Christ morphs into that of Mary, in a way that to me is very reminiscent of the way Picasso in “Guernica” stretched and distorted faces of grief at the horror of war.  It shows in a very real way, the connection between mother and child, between Mary and Jesus and the inevitable grief that was to be Mary's, to lose her child.  Below and to the left of Mary is a white haired woman in a green robe, holding her hands over her eyes.  We have a clue that this is St Anne, Mary's mother, by the white hair and the fact that she is traditionally depicted in a green mantle.  St Anne seems to be weeping, holding her hands to her face.  Above St Anne, we presume is Joseph, whose head only is visible.  Ranging above the Holy Family are the figures of the three wise men, or magi, who cluster closely around with outstretched hands.

Traditionally solemn, the faces of the magi, Joseph, St Anne and the double face of Jesus/Mary seem to me to be filled with grief – it seems to me as though Harris' telling of the birth story is already foreshadowing easter, and all are grieving for Jesus' death even as they celebrate his birth.  This makes sense as a reading of the Christmas story, but even more so when we reflect on  Harris' experience of losing Imogen not even a year after her birth.

The central figures are surrounded by a host of symbols: swords again representing death, more crowns, a baby within a vessel, a door in the back of a naked figure, pouring out water, perhaps representing Jesus pouring out himself as a sacrifice.  A baby attached by its umbilical cord to a tree, which in Harris' lexicon often represents sacrifice or the cross.  A white clad figure with tongues of fire on their head, a woman in labour.  The octogan is present in the bottom right of this panel too, clearly depicting the crucifixion, overtly bringing the death of Christ, while outside of the inner ring, still very close to the depiction of the birth . 

The intensity of the numbers and variety of Harris' symbols is underscored by his use of intense colour.  The vibrant, cobalt blue stretches across the horizon of all three panels and also trickles down the painting in the pouring out of water, a robe and a vase.  This colour is cool and refreshing, but is limited to the strip at the top of the paintings and small elements within the paintings.  Harris uses mainly red and yellow in the remainder of the panels, in intense, primary shades.  His colour palette is restricted to these intense contrasts of red and yellow and blue, with touches of green and brown.  The effect of the use of these hot colours is that they come forward towards the viewer and they heighten emotion, this sense of intensity and tension, almost claustrophobia within the inner ring of the central panel.

This is the second painting where Harris has used a circle/ring/crown shape encirling events – the first being 'Magnolia Bough, Imogen's Crown”.  It has been suggested that this is a physical representation of crowning – the appearance of the baby's head during childbirth.  This is a threshold moment in the birth process, and this idea of threshold in “Magnolia Bough” of death as a birth can be taken in “Love as Strong as a Boat” as another threshold moment: Jesus' entry into the world changes everything.. In this painting the death as birth is turned on its head to  be the idea of death's presence being already there in birth – both in Jesus' story and the reality that Harris had lived through with his daughter.

It has been written about Harris that his use of symbology; Christian, Arthurian, Buddhist in these post Imogen paintings was less an exploration and more a “flinging [of] images out ahead of himself [...] as if in a desperate effort to manage or quell the problem.”  The same writer refers to Harris having a crisis of symbolic language in a post-religious culture, at the same time as a personal crisis, resulting in this controlled frenzy of sometimes seemingly random symbols and images.  Justin Paton writes “There is, however, something deeply unsatisfying about attempts to read this or any other Harris painting in a strictly symbolic way.  To be told that a boat symbolises a journey, or that a cross symbolises sacrifice, is to learn nothing new.  What matters is the sense that symbols may be inadequete for the task and must therefore be accumulated without let up.”

In this painting,  the birth of Christ and picture of the Holy Family with St Anne and the magi – often depicted in art in quite a calm and soothing way, is here crammed full with life, movement, colour and a proliferation of symbols of life and death.  A confusing riot of symbols and figures and faces and intense colour.  In one sense, it probably gives a fairly accurate reflection of what must have been a completely chaotic was to give birth – in transit for the census, with no space for Mary to prepare for and give birth in any kind of peace; having to put her first born child into a feeding trough because there was nowhere else.  The painting conveys that craziness and chaos.  I also get a sense of tension from the painting, a sense that what is usually cause for celebration has within it a core of grief.   – a grief in the death of Christ that is to come, that death is part of birth and life and part of the Christmas story.  There is also a very personal grief here.  Harris' own experience of the death of his baby daughter adds another dimension to this intense depiction of the Holy Family and the journey through Jesus' story of birth, life, death, and life once more.

After the presentation I was asked what I understood the meaning of the title to be.  This sparked a discussion about possible meanings.  Suggestions included that 'love as strong as a boat' could refer to the abiding strength of love, even beyond death, or that love is our purpose on the journey. 'As heavy as an oar' seemed to speak of the physical hard labour of rowing as a metaphor for the hardness in the journey of life/love.