The Art of Water

Water as a Theme or Metaphor in the Arts

Visual artists, poets, novelists, composers, playwrights, filmmakers and choreographers have long been inspired by the inherent beauty, movement and sound of water.  The list of well-known paintings, prints, poems, novels, plays, songs, musical compositions and dances that incorporate water as a literal image, as a theme or as a metaphor is immense.

Gene Kelly in the 1952 film, Singing in the Rain

Gene Kelly in the 1952 film, Singing in the Rain

Here are just a few examples:

Who doesn’t feel the pure joy and playfulness exuding from Gene Kelly in love when he dances, sings, leaps and stomps to Singing in the Rain in spite of the gloomy downpour and wet puddles? Or the power and force of nature portrayed in Frederick Church’s magnificent 1867 painting, Niagra Falls? In describing what he was trying to accomplish with his Water Lily paintings, Claude Monet wrote that they were “the illusion of an endless whole, of water without horizon or bank.” Handel’s 1717 commission to compose a concert for King George and his party as they sailed on the River Thames became his Water Music, a ‘flood’ of melodies, fittingly majestic and spectacular. And in his last play, The TempestWilliam Shakespeare uses the violent storm as a catalyst that dramatically affects the lives and actions of all his characters.

 The Tempest by John William Waterhouse, 1916

The Tempest by John William Waterhouse, 1916
Based on William Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest

Water Across the Academic Disciplines

When we go to elementary, middle or high schools to work with students on a Wave installation, Elena and I encourage teachers to incorporate The Wave and its theme of water across academic disciplines, to tap into the poetry, novels, plays, music and dances that have already been created by singing songs, reading books, writing new stories and choreographing new dances in conjunction with The Wave installation. We also suggest that they conduct a water conservation awareness project in their local community, monitor their own water usage or research global water issues, etc.  To promote interdisciplinary learning on water, we are posting lessons on our website that teachers we have worked with have developed. We have also included a page of links on the website highlighting major national and international organizations that have created curricula on water, water conservation, water shortage around the world, water purification, water desalination and many other topics.

Poetry on Water

Relating to the topic of creative outpourings on water, I came across a poem recently that beautifully describes how water has no real shape of its own and, therefore, adapts efficiently to its environment.  The poem, “Be Like Water” was written by wellness advocate, Jason Wachob to Bruce Lee, the Chinese American martial artist.  Here it is:

Bruce Lee: Be Like Water

Be like water making its way through cracks.  Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.

Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.

“Be Like Water” instigated a delightful discussion between Elena and me on our favorite poems related to water in all of its iterations (ice, snow, ocean, brook, river, lake, stream, storm, rain, sleet, pool, well, etc.,etc.).  I’ll start with Elena’s favorite, called “Marina” written by the Russian/Soviet poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892 – 1941) and translated by Elena herself.

by Marina Tsvetaeva

Some people are fashioned
Of clay and of ashes,
But I am all glittering freedom!
My name is Marina.
I act on my passions.
I’m ocean froth destined to perish.

 The Waves 'Frothing' Philbin Beach, Martha's Vineyard Courtesy of Susan Hoffman Fishman

The Waves ‘Frothing’
Philbin Beach, Martha’s Vineyard, 2008
Photograph Courtesy of Susan Hoffman Fishman

I have many favorite poems with a water theme: Water by Ralph Waldo Emerson; Going For Water by Robert Frost; Water is Taught by Thirst by Emily Dickinson; All Day I Hear the Noise of Waters by James Joyce and a special favorite from my childhood, Spring Morning by A.A. Milne. The Frost and Milne poems are included below.

Going for Water
by Robert Frost

The well was dry beside the door,
And so we went with pail and can
Across the fields behind the house
To seek the brook if still it ran;

Not loth to have excuse to go,
Because the autumn eve was fair
(Though chill), because the fields were ours,
And by the brook our woods were there.

We ran as if to meet the moon
That slowly dawned behind the trees,
The barren boughs without the leaves,
Without the birds, without the breeze.

But once within the wood, we paused
Like gnomes that hid us from the moon,
Ready to run to hiding new
With laughter when she found us soon.

Each laid on other a staying hand
To listen ere we dared to look,
And in the hush we joined to make
We heard, we knew we heard the brook.

A note as from a single place,
A slender tinkling fall that made
Now drops that floated on the pool
Like pearls, and now a silver blade.

 Brook, 2012 Photograph Courtesy of Susan Hoffman Fishman

Brook, 2012
Photograph Courtesy of Susan Hoffman Fishman

Spring Morning
by A.A. Milne

Where am I going? I don’t quite know.
Down to the stream where the king-cups grow-
Up on the hill where the pine-trees blow-
Anywhere, anywhere. I don’t know.

Where am I going? The clouds sail by,
Little ones, baby ones, over the sky.
Where am I going? The shadows pass,
Little ones, baby ones, over the grass.

If you were a cloud, and sailed up there,
You’d sail on water as blue as air,
And you’d see me here in the fields and say:
“Doesn’t the sky look green today?”

Where am I going? The high rooks call:
“It’s awful fun to be born at all.”
Where am I going? The ring-doves coo:
“We do have beautiful things to do.”

If you were a bird, and lived on high,
You’d lean on the wind when the wind came by,
You’d say to the wind when it took you away:
“That’s where I wanted to go today!”

Where am I going? I don’t quite know.
What does it matter where people go?
Down to the wood where the blue-bells grow-
Anywhere, anywhere. I don’t know.

What are your favorite poems on water, snow, the ocean, etc? Or, for that matter, do you have favorite paintings, songs, films, operas, ballets, etc. that incorporate the theme of water? We’d love to hear about them.