How can we remember those who drown at sea? Kelly Grovier looks at a floating memorial to Syrian refugees who have died in the Mediterranean.
The death at sea of a loved one is a fate that haunts survivors with particular horror. This week, photos circulated in social media of a temporary memorial off the coast of Turkey, created to eulogise the estimated 4,000 Syrian refugees who have died in the desperate journey to find safety in Europe. Comprised of 200 styrofoam headstones, fashioned convincingly to resemble polished marble slabs, the ‘Sea Cemetery’ is a flotilla of unsinkable sadness. Anchored by weights that keep the seemingly gravity-defying stones in fluid rows (eerily echoing the order of a veterans’ cemetery), the carved names and cut-short years drift undrownably on the observer’s conscience.
The buoyancy of the headstones is intended, no doubt, to symbolise the resilience of memory, however painful. But the images possess another power too, one capable of casting unexpected light on the solemn tradition of art honouring those who have perished making arduous crossings. The sea has ceaselessly set a cruel stage for the imaginations of artists and writers: whether it’s John Milton’s poem Lycidas, composed in 1637 to in memory of a drowned classmate, or J M W Turner’s sombre painting Peace – Burial at Sea, which commemorates fellow artist David Wilkie, who perished off the coast of Gibraltar in 1841; William Wordsworth’s Elegiac Stanzas, written in honour of the poet’s brother, John, who died in 1805 commanding a doomed ship in the Irish Sea, or French painter Théodore Géricault’s canvas The Raft of the Medusa, which controversially called attention to the agonising demise over 13 days in 1816 of 132 people following the wreck of a naval frigate bound for Senegal.
Seen in the context of the Sea Cemetery, an icescape such as The Wreck of Hope, painted in 1823-24 by the German artist Caspar David Friedrich, is suddenly invigorated with contemporary intensity. In Friedrich’s dramatic work, a ship can be seen overturned amid a tumult of arctic ice sheets whose sharp upward thrust has erected a frozen catacomb resembling an ancient burial tomb or prehistoric portal. Though inspired, in part, by the explorer William Parry’s voyage in 1819 to discover the Northwest Passage, Friedrich’s vision of the sea’s frigid surface transformed into an icy mausoleum was mainly macabre fantasy. Placed alongside this week’s photos of the Sea Cemetery, however, The Wreck of Hope reimagines itself as a kind of archetypal holding pattern for titanic loss.