Massimo Sestini won a coveted World Press Photo of the Year award in 2015 for this image of an overcrowded refugee boat off the coast of Libya. The photo is striking for its beauty, however it is also distressing, perhaps for that very reason.
In 2014 alone, the year this photo was taken, 219,000 people fled across the Mediterranean and 3,500 men, woman and children lost their lives on the treacherous journey. The ending for the passengers shown in this photo was a happy one, however: shortly after Massimo Sestini discovered the scene from a helicopter, they were rescued by an Italian frigate.
The certainty of imminent rescue is reflected in the passengers’ faces, and this gives the photo a positive atmosphere despite the drama of the situation. The impact of the image draws on a long history of nautical images, however: the ship traditionally symbolises hope and the departure for a better world, despite all the hazards presented by the sea.
Despite the popularity of beach holidays in the nineteenth century, the prudish morals of the time made it difficult for people to actually bathe in the sea. The idea of seaside tourism originated from England, where the town of Scarborough on the North Sea became the first sea resort when spa waters were discovered there in the 1660s. The fashion for taking holidays by the sea originated there. The use of “bathing machines” began in Scarborough from 1736. These changing rooms on wheels enabled women, in particular, to bathe in the open sea without being seen and causing moral offence. The carts were drawn into the water by horses and parked in such a way that the bathers could alight on the sea side.
The first bathing carts in Germany were used on the island of Norderney and in Travemünde around 1800. However, by the second half of the nineteenth century, swimming baths had emerged and put an end to the era of the bathing cart.
The artist Gustave Courbet, who grew up in the Jura region and lived in Paris for many years, fled to the sea for other reasons. He was politically active in Paris and constantly came into conflict with the authorities. Thus he retreated to Normandy where he was able to paint in peace and earn good money. In just a few years, he produced around 60 paintings featuring the surf and waves which sold very well. They enabled their buyers to take the sea back to the city with them.
Caspar David Friedrich knew all about the terrors of the sea. Born and bred in Baltic city of Greifswald, he was familiar not only with the pleasures of the sea, but also its destructive forces. He painted his work The Sea of Ice in 1823-24. The world had largely been discovered and explored by then and one of the last remaining challenges was the exploration of the North and South Poles.
In 1818-19, British explorer William Edward Parry embarked on a polar expedition that attracted a lot of public interest. It is possible that Caspar David Friedrich was inspired by descriptions of this expedition. Although the British ships returned safe and sound, Friedrich presents a shipwreck in his painting and explores the theme of human impotence in the face of the all-powerful forces of nature.