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The Watercolour exhibition at the Tate Britain.

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Thursday, 14th April 2011 – David Franchi

4_-_23554w_blakeriverorlife_-_Copia“Watercolour” is an attractive exhibition loaded with visitors, at the Tate Britain, London, until the 21st of August 2011. It presents a history of watercolour in Britain from Middle Ages through the present days, spanning over 800 years with over 250 works. “Watercolour” also offers the chance to see rarely displayed works, for example of artists like J.M.W. Turner, Thomas Girtin, Anish Kapoor and Tracey Emin. Before the advent of photography watercolour was used primarily for recording eye-witness accounts. Artists used it because it was so versatile and portable.

A watercolour is the medium or the resulting artwork in which the paints are made of pigments suspended in a water soluble vehicle. The tradition of painting in watercolour is thousands of years old. British artists have been among the greatest exponents. The Tate Britain exhibition presents fresh views on watercolourchallenging common ideas. 

         [photo] William Blake, The River of Life c. 1805, © Tate

 The medium has long been regarded as a distinctive part of British cultural heritage. However, the exhibition also challenges the national concept that watercolour is especially British by showing some key pieces from continental Europe, such as Jacques Le Moyne, Anthony van Dyck and Wenceslaus Hollar. Moreover, in China, Korea, and Japan watercolour has been the dominant painting medium, often in monochrome black or browns. India, Ethiopia and other countries also have long traditions.

The Tate exhibition is chronologically set up. The first room, “Intimate knowledge”, explains that the method originated from a variety of practices including cartography, miniatures painting and manuscript illumination. Watercolour became a medium for its delicacy and precision, and was utilised for recording and retaining information even in difficult, or fast changing situations. It was through the work of itinerant artists, like Anthony Van Dyck and Wenceslaus Hollar, that watercolour acquired the status of art.



[photo]  Samuel Palmer, A Dream in the Apennine exhibited 1864, Tate


 Watercolour facilitated the dissemination of knowledge, according to the second gallery, “Natural World”. Many illustrators of the natural world were also technically gifted watercolourists. They developed a visual language which has remained standard up to the present day. Voyages of discovery, together with travel and trade in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries brought images of flora and fauna unknown to Western Europe. Illustrators had a vital role in the increasing of the usability of the new knowledge, propping up the development of science and helping those, like Carl Linnaeus, who created new scientific approaches.

During the eighteenth century the portability of watercolour encouraged artists to travel overseas. “Travel and Topography”, the third gallery, shows the importance of this employ. Some of the most famous British landscapes have been painted with watercolour the ideal technique for evoking the atmosphere, climate and picturesque effects of these sceneries.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century watercolour started to be used as a real form of art in itself. The fourth gallery, “The Exhibition Watercolour”, deals with the birth of the exhibiting watercolourists societies. In 1804, the Society of Painters in Water Colours was formed in a London coffee house. A year later dedicated watercolour exhibitions began. A rival New Society began in 1807. As the Royal Watercolour Society and Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours, these organisations still flourish today. Watercolourists challenged history painters or explored popular narrative and genre subjects.

2_-_23533w_t12336_-_CopiaThe fifth gallery, “Water + Colour: Exploring the Medium”, is more a didactical space. This room presents a history of changes in materials and processes from the sixteenth century to the present day, many of which were innovations from British artists and manufacturer. Here on show the many techniques established with a conventional set of apparatuses materials (brushes, paints and paper) to use and control its two most distinctive qualities: liquidity (or wateriness) and transparency (the way that light is reflected through it).  

 [photo] Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Blue Rigi, Sunrise, 1842

Watercolour was used to depict war scenes, shows the sixth room, “Watercolour and War”. In extreme situations the medium is really handy and flexible to employ. Before the advent of photography it allowed for fast painting on the battlefield and it was also employed to document trauma and injury to the body. Most of the works in this section were produced during the First and Second World Wars. The use of watercolour in war situations disappeared because of the employ of new technologies such as photography and film.

The particular seventh gallery, “Inner Vision”, focus on such artists who have used watercolour on imagination or memory from the eighteenth century to the present. Personal, interiorised subjects were often employed by artists at that time to challenge conventional art. Today, it is accepted that any view of the world is subjective and the emotional or the psychological side is a key aspect of contemporary art.


The employ of thoughts in art is usually considered to be a twentieth-century fact. However, the last room, “Abstraction and Improvisation”, brings together works from across three centuries. The creative process is sometimes unpredictable, in other occasions there is more control on the materials or there is a combination of watercolour with unusual materials. Today, the use of watercolour for innovative practice is very common.

Some critics pointed out watercolour as ‘dead’ at the beginning of the twentieth century. Despite this consideration, several different modern artworks have been made using watercolour, unless denying the dignity of art to movies (e.g. Disney), cartoons (e.g. Warner Bros) and comics (e.g. Hugo Pratt). This exhibition missed opportunity is to not display -at least say something- about these kind of artworks, though maybe in Britain this production is reduced.

Moreover, today watercolour is still used by an uncountable number of amateur and artist groups around the world. The exhibition, in fact, is packed with these kinds of people staring at the walls, watching from a ‘nose-distance’ into the frame and trying to catch the ‘secret-of-the-artist’.

“Watercolour” is part of the Great British Art Debate supported by The National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund. The exhibition is curated by a group of Tate curators headed by Alison Smith, Head of British Art to 1900. 

Published for: www.italoeuropeo.com

Direct link: http://www.italoeuropeo.com/entertaiment/arts/the-watercolour-exhibition-at-the-tate-britain./


Written by davidfranchi

April 15, 2011 at 1:26 am

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