This multi-framed painting of a sinking sailboat is part of an interconnected body of work by Joyce Wieland (1930–1998), known as the Disaster paintings, which date from 1963 to 1966. Variations on this sequential work picture sinking boats and ocean liners, along with a few plane crash paintings. In each of the boat paintings the narrative sequence is simple: a sea vessel appears, horizontally positioned against the line of the horizon, and frame by frame it tilts and founders, until it is swallowed up by the waves in the last panel.


Joyce Wieland, Boat Tragedy, 1964
Joyce Wieland, Boat Tragedy, 1964
Oil on canvas, 50 x 122 cm, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

Wieland reduces the visual information required to construct these scenarios. In some frames the boat consists of little more than a white triangle to suggest a sail, and the sea is indicated by an expanse of striated blue paint. Despite this shorthand the geometric shapes are intelligible as objects and spaces, and it is easy to empathize with the boats that have starring roles in these quasi-cinematic sequences.


Wieland devises a clever way of manipulating the viewer’s emotional response. The little bobbing boat in Boat Tragedy may be absurd, but it is difficult to remain aloof from the drama, and from the sense of a tragic ending.


This Spotlight is excerpted from Joyce Wieland: Life & Work by Johanne Sloan.

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