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Sharks in Art
The 1778 oil painting by John Singleton Copley, titled ‘Watson and the Shark’, is a well-known image based on a shark attack that took place in Havana harbour in 1749. The victim appears vulnerable and helpless and is lit in a way that suggests an angelic innocence, whilst the great shark is depicted as a monster of the sea, swirling from the oceans dark depths. There is a clear sense of good vs. evil. Paintings such as these have promoted the shark as an evil blood-thirsty monster to be feared, a concept that has existed for centuries.
Although man has always sat at the top of the food chain, the knowledge of our imminent mortality is a daunting notion. Anything that serves to highlight our vulnerabilities or remind us of the frailty of life is often viewed as a threat to be eradicated. Sharks are extremely efficient predators; their speed and agility, in an element we are unaccustomed to, their numerous razor sharp teeth and impeccable senses, as well as our inability to see them coming from above the water, presents a formidable foe. Their allusive nature also serves to heighten our wariness of this creature - lucky for us that humans are not a shark's natural prey.
The artist Damien Hirst explores this concept of human mortality in the contentious artwork; The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. This infamous and iconic artwork presents a preserved Tiger Shark floating within a glass tank of formaldehyde. Whilst the morality of commissioning such a work is disputable, the concept of this piece is interesting to explore. Hirst's fascination with life and death are recurring themes in his work and he frequently exposes the frailty of biological existence. This work in particular creates a sense of fear in his viewers by making the subject as life-like as possible; the shark's eyes are said to glimmer from the artificially reflected light, giving the eerie illusion of life in death.
However ferocious or life-like this shark appears, it is worth considering whether the shark itself is really that fearsome, or if this fear is more primly rooted in what the shark serves to represent – a reminder of our vulnerability and the finality of mortality that threatens all life.
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