In Pictures: A Surprising Museum Show Explores the Starring Role Seaweed—Yes, Seaweed—Plays in Classic Works of Art and Design
Viewed through an artistic lens, algae turns out to have “a certain fabulous quality.”
The shelves are filled with books that dive deep into the history of a single supposedly neglected subject, often making grand claims for how they shaped history: Salt. Cadavers. Cod. Sheep.
Now open at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts is a surprising exhibition in a similar vein: “A Singularly Marine and Fabulous Produce: the Cultures of Seaweed” (through December 3). The show takes its name from a passage by Henry David Thoreau, who called seaweed “a fit invention for Neptune to adorn his car with,” adding that it is one of the products of the sea that has “a certain fabulous quality.”
“The project’s programming and catalogue make connections between the cultural histories of seaweed as explored in the exhibition and the urgent environmental issues of today related to climate change, aquaculture, and sustainability—where seaweed is at the vanguard,” said chief curator Naomi Slipp in a press release. Slipp organized the show along with Northeastern University professor Maura Coughlin, who specializes in ecocritical art history, and it includes works ranging from the 19th century to examples by contemporary artists like Mark Dion.
Casual beachgoers may find seaweed distasteful, but such plants are a key part of shoreline economies, used for fertilizer, home insulation, and bedding for livestock, as Slipp pointed out, and thus have long attracted the attention of artists and craftspeople.
The show centers on Massachusetts-born artist Clement Nye Swift’s nearly eight-foot-wide painting Seaweed Gatherers, which he showed at the 1878 Salon exhibition in Paris. It was painted in Pont-Aven in Brittany, a region of France where artists escaping Paris painted idealized versions of the local peasants. Slipp points out in the catalogue that such depictions were, by the time Swift got there, nostalgic renderings of an imagined pre-industrial past.
Also on view are paintings by major figures like John Singer Sargent and Andrew Wyeth as well as decorative arts by notable brands such as Gorham and Wedgewood, along with albums, collages, and early photographs by anonymous makers. Among the striking works are an 1880s photograph of a woman in a dress adorned with seaweed, a silver-and-gold Tiffany punch bowl decorated with a seaweed motif, and a life-size bronze sculpture of a fisherman’s sweater made of seaweed and wax by artist Celeste Roberge.
A roster of heavy-hitting institutions have lent works to the show, among them New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Connecticut’s Yale University Art Gallery, the RISD Museum, and the Winterthur Museum in Delaware.
See more images from the show below.
“A Singularly Marine and Fabulous Produce: the Cultures of Seaweed” is on view at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, 18 Johnny Cake Hill, New Bedford, Massachusetts, June 16–December 3, 2023.
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