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Tricky Demuth

tomahawk's picture

I glance at Demuth’s Three Figures in Water, and see three people swimming in the ocean. I begin to walk away, but as I take a step back, I realize that there are not three people in the painting, only three figures. Each figure has black bowl-cut hair. And, even though I cannot see one of the figure’s faces, I assume that he looks like the two other men in the painting. Like them, he has light skin and soft features. I see that all three figures are replicas of each other. They might not be three people; Demuth may have painted one man in different positions. First, he may have painted a man who is completely submerged in the ocean. Then, Demuth painted the same man again, but had him stand up in the water and rest his arms on the waves. And, Demuth may have painted this man one last time. On the right, the man swims in the ocean with his head above the surface.

I take another step back, and the ocean disappears. There are thick lines of color and off-white space between them. The curve of the lines imitate the curves of a wave, but I do not see water anymore. I see empty space. I can no longer differentiate the water from the sky. Both are off-white. Earlier, I thought the line near the top of the painting was the horizon. It is the only straight line. Now, I see that it is the same blue as the blue wave beneath the middle figure’s left arm. And, I see a triangle of blue protruding out of it. When I stood closer to the painting, I had passed this triangle off as sea spray. But, now that I realize Demuth did not paint water, only waves, the triangle and the line that I assumed was the horizon seem to be part of another, more distant wave. I no longer see a sky. I do not see an ocean. Demuth’s Three Figures in Water is now a painting of the same man interacting in different ways with thick wavy lines.

I step closer to the painting hoping to see the water again, and I do. I see what the painting is made of. It’s all watercolor. And, I laugh as I realize that Demuth just used water to paint water. He merely blurred some of the thick colorful lines by painting over them with a wetted paintbrush. I see faint color between some of the waves, and I feel closer to seeing an ocean and a sky again.

I did this dance with the painting for the full thirty minutes. I would step as close as I was allowed to, and then I would walk back a bit and look at the painting again. When I first saw it, I did not think it was anything special. I planned to focus on a painting by Picasso. But, I kept thinking about Demuth’s Three Figures in Water. I was not only captivated by its beauty, I was amazed that Demuth could make me see three different people, an ocean, and a sky. He knew my mind would fill in the barely painted spaces. And, he tricked me into seeing things in his painting that he had not painted.