Medium is message at Tate Britain 'Watercolour' show

An ambitious exhibit offers fresh assessment of a medium associated with hobbyists and amateurs.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 4, 2011; 8:56 PM

Watercolor is the medium of schoolchildren, of hobbyists, of amateurs. It evokes associations with plastic paint brushes stuck in a jam jar, of coloring within the lines. Even in the hands of a masterful artist, it retains a sense of intimacy and informality: calligraphic sweeps of a brush as a shorthand for a figure or a landscape, accidental effects of light and shadow created from the way a pool of color flows across wet paper. It is, therefore, an unlikely focus for a blockbuster show.

The Tate Britain in London, which opened the show "Watercolour" last month, is playing up this contradiction. The word "Watercolour" (this being Britain, it gets a "u") occupies the center of a wall in the museum's lobby, hovering over an image of a Turner landscape blown up to the point of grotesquerie. It's a perfect emblem of the show: an attempt to make something fleeting into something monumental. Yet the exhibit is at its weakest when it's trying to make great claims and at its best when it, like its medium, steps back and simply lets us see.

There's something very contemporary about "Watercolour." It's like a Malcolm Gladwell book: a loose catchy thesis ("Look, watercolor can be important!") supported by an amalgamation of small, pointed and often diverting insights organized into something that, although it's not a conventional narrative, pulls you along as if it were.

The chronological story the exhibit tells about watercolor is a window into the many manifestations of the medium before its 18th- and 19th-century heyday of landscape sketches and scenes (think J.M.W. Turner). Suddenly, we have a context for various forms of decorative art and illustration: maps, miniatures, costume sketches by Inigo Jones, meticulous images of flora and fauna painstakingly rendered in an age before photography. How do we appraise an illuminated manuscript from a 15th-century book of hours, the translucent skin of a lady's portrait from 1610 on a three-inch oval of vellum, the stems of an asphodel curling across the page in a botanical illustration from 1747 that dimly presages the all-over aesthetic of action painting? Why, it's all watercolor. Just look at the different uses to which it's been put.

Certainly this variety helps shake the modern tendency to stereotype watercolor as a medium of expressive immediacy (as showcased in Turner's late sketchbook abstractions or even in his "The Blue Rigi," the show's iconic image, with a mountain sheathed in fog over a luminous wash of lake flecked with the quick strokes of waterfowl). Such a stereotype fails to take into account watercolor's potential for precision or its purely functional use of simply coloring in drawings and bringing them to life. The scientific illustrations destined to be preserved in 18th-century folios aimed primarily at accuracy. A macaque's fur in an early 19th-century image by a Chinese artist is rendered in such detail that your eye gets lost in its softness - a trait associated more with Jan van Eyck oils than the lowly watercolor.

Yet the show is so eager to demonstrate watercolor's breadth that it waters down its argument. According to its curator, Alison Smith, any water-based paint is "watercolor" - tempera, gouache (which adds white pigment to the paint, making it opaque), earth, even, unconvincingly, acrylic, which splashes in exuberant but rather inexpressive arcs across the canvas in Sandra Blow's 1988 abstraction, "Vivace."

There's some excellent contemporary work here, including Anish Kapoor's fleshy, womblike "Untitled," with its layerings of pigment and red gouache. But in general, these attempts at expansion and increase of scale - culminating in the large three-dimensional work "Opportunity for Girls" from 2006 by Karla Black, which is made of suspended cellophane treated with substances including watercolor, Vaseline and shampoo - only undermine the premise that watercolor is an exciting medium on its own, though I concede that you want to end with some kind of large-scale work, if for nothing more than dramatic satisfaction.

If there's an extra level of defensiveness about the presentation of watercolor here, it's because the show is attempting to make a case for something seen as a particularly British medium. (It is, in fact, one of a series of shows the Tate Britain is doing about different manifestations of British art.) Inevitably, such a view ends up slightly underlining provincialism, even as it tries to deny it.

But historically, this keeps happening to watercolor: its attempts to assert itself are clouded by a counterproductive self-importance. The show's chronological trail continues through some gorgeous landscapes (Thomas Girtin's "The White House at Chelsea" from 1800, a composition in which the tiny white square of the titular house becomes a focal point that seems to pin the sky- and seascape to the page) and documentary snapshots (market day in Norwich in 1809, by John Sell Cotman; a 1793 image by William Alexander of a Chinese gentleman sitting at a table in front of a plate and bottle offered with the perspectival self-assertion of a Cezanne or Morandi). From there, it documents a period starting in the early-19th century when watercolor painters, frustrated at being turned down by the principal exhibitions of the day, formed their own academies. The "exhibition watercolors" they produced as a result are large, elaborate, heavily worked images in which watercolor is entirely engaged in the enterprise of looking just as good as oil. Though some of these works are significant (Samuel Palmer's Arcadian landscape bathed in a pink-and-gold sunset; Arthur Melville's nightscape of Venice, golden stone rising through a velvet blue-black sky), they form in aggregate the least interesting body of work in the show.

In that judgment, I am promoting what Smith, in her introduction, calls "a fundamentally Modernist understanding . . . that the essence of a medium lends it a specific identity." Yet all the most interesting work in the show seems precisely to take the medium into consideration.

Watercolor is always a form of action painting: It represents a documentation of the equilibrium between freedom of stroke and deliberateness of intention. Once a gesture is made in a watercolor, it's hard to take back; once a surface is covered, it can't be made white again, except through the application of gouache, which gives light a concrete, even opaque aspect when applied as a highlight - in, for instance, John Frederick Lewis's 1845 image of an Egyptian bazaar.

Not that watercolor always needs to be gestural. Some of my favorite works in the show exploit the finicky, soap-bubble aspects of a delicate medium. Lucy Skaer's "Cell #1 (with rules and exceptions)" from 2005, based on a photograph of a jail cell, transforms the image by filling in the negative spaces between the bars with small, even anal-compulsive strips of banded color, interrupted by cloudlike shadow-forms where the page is left blank. Charles Rennie Mackintosh's "Fetges," painted in the late 1920s after his heyday as a furniture and interior designer had passed, turns a French village into a collage of line and plane, the tangle of surfaces of roofs and house-fronts, in a whole spectrum of white and gray light, emerging from a patchwork of fields that are either thickly tweeded with vegetables or fallow in pale beige and tan. It's a designer's-eye view of a landscape.

"Watercolour," the show, does manage to be as accessible as its medium - which means it also succeeds didactically. At about the halfway mark, the show pauses its chronological account for a brief course in Watercolor 101: a room lined with cases displaying different techniques, styles and even paintboxes, including one set that belonged to Queen Victoria. On the day I attended, the room was crowded with people eager to have explained to them just what it was they were supposed to have been looking at.

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