The City by the Sea

7:00 AM

Gösta Adrian-Nilsson, The City by the Sea, 1919

Where’s the sea? I see the city, its obvious - cramped streets overshadowed by a jumble of structures, people, roads, walls, but no sea. There is a presence of water – a strip solely marked by a few ships – but the other elements of the painting loom above it, seeming to engulf the only possible respite from the bustling city. The strip of water doesn’t pave its way through the city, splitting the canvas between city and nature, but appears to be part of the urban scene, integrated into the rapidly industrialized environment. Not only is the water being surrounded by an urban setting, but it also appears to be industrialized itself. The dock has items to be shipped and a crane (or at least something that looks like a crane) in the distance, and the ship closest to the dock resembles a modern barge in comparison to the other ships. The water, or rather the items within the water, are being used to spread urbanization, taking the elements of the city out to the sea (wherever that may be). However, does it even matter that it is the sea? Without the ships, the water would resemble a road, an object that serves a similar purpose – spreading items and ideas. However, there is one major difference; while a road spreads ideas within a nation, a ship holds the power to spread ideas across the world. Thus, Adrian-Nilsson isn’t just commenting on the urbanization of one city, but the connection of urbanization between cities across vast oceans. 

Gösta Adrian-Nilsson, a Swedish artist and writer during the 20th century, is credited with having a major impact in the development of modern art in Sweden through his paintings. The City by the Sea fuses elements of Cubism and Futurism together, compiling elements of one city onto one layered and chaotic canvas. When looking at the painting, your eye attempts to comprehend the angles, trying to locate a reference point that makes the rest of the canvas make sense, but to no avail. There isn’t a reference point that links each element of the painting together. The people range in sizes, the streets would not be navigable by a Garmin GPS, and somehow one of the buildings is missing a wall, but the people in the living room don’t seem concerned. The painting is a hodgepodge of scenes from the city, views from different streets, different levels, different rooms, different corners, all compiled together to present a complete representation of a single city. Richard R. Brettell describes, “the surface is no longer a field of vision, but a field of action or compressed observation.” Each movement of your eye is a jump from one side of the city to another, a completely different perspective that takes a moment to adjust to. But, this is the artistic appeal of Cubism - confusion. 

Cubism always confused me. I would look at the painting, speculate what I thought the subject was, and then read the title and feel as if I missed the whole point. How could something that just looked like a random assortment of lines actually be a person walking down a flight of stairs? However, The City by the Sea finally cracked the barrier between Cubism and my analytical view. The viewer isn’t supposed to connect the lines to form a single snapshot, but rather take in each individual line as one moment and follow the lines as they create a timeline or a compilation of multiple places. So, maybe the sea really is in this painting, it just isn’t depicted how I expected it to be. The sea isn’t a vast area that has a specific barrier between it and the city in the painting, it is that single strip of water caught in-between two other parts of the city, engulfed by urbanization and being used to spread industry and ideas across the world.


You Might Also Like