The thought of schools of artists swimming in formation -- all following one subject, one esthetic, one technique -- is ineffably distressing. Because their groupiness offends us, it is easy to condemn the minor action painters (who started hurling paint in New York in the '50s) and the lesser hard-edge artists (who unrolled rolls of masking tape in the next decade) as so many sheep. We yearn for the unique, or at least we think we do. There are, of course, exceptions. The Orientalists are in. The pre-Raphaelites are selling. And the current exhibition at Taggart, Jorgensen & Putman, 3241 P St. NW -- though unashamedly repetitious -- is in many ways a treat.
The show is titled "Country Life: British Watercolors of Cottages, Gardens and Genre." The paintings on display are Victorian and Edwardian. And all are pretty much alike.
None of them is daring and none of them is coarse. All of them sing hymns to English rural life, and all of them ignore England's sooty towns. This is what they look like: The sun is shining brightly on a quiet country cottage on a quiet country lane. (It rains frequently in England, but rarely in these pictures.) The roof is aging thatch. Here, these thatched roofs tell us, dwelt the yeomanry of old. But the yeomen have departed. Only women are in sight. Most of them wear bonnets, and most of them are young. Shepherdesses, milkmaids, laundry maids or goosegirls, they are happily, unhurriedly, tending to their chores. They are fetching water, feeding chickens, herding ducks or shelling peas. None of them look anxious. Most are little more than props.
Here people do not matter, here grief does not exist. An odd, selective vision rules this exhibition. These watercolor artists were concerned with something else: with tiny brushes, flawless craft, and with flora above all.
Plants dominate these pictures. Almost all these painters were naturalists and botanists who, obedient to the dictates of John Ruskin, studied leaves and stalks and blossoms as closely, as obsessively, as Audubon studied birds.
When Edmund George Warren, R.I. (the "R.I." stands for "Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour") painted this sweet harvest scene, he paid far more attention to the fresh-cut sheaves and the still-green stubble than he did to the harvesters taking rest nearby. Many modern landscape painters, relying on slides, use sheets of green for lawns, and blobs of green for trees, but these painters would not compromise. Their foxgloves are foxgloves, not lupins. In 1857, when Edward Facon Watson (1820-1892) painted "Shady Lane in Surrey," he took pains to portray the dark green of the ivy, the light green of the bracken, each thorn on the brambles and each leaf of the trees.
Though these artists are not famous, the high level of their skill, and of their botanical knowledge, regularly astonishes. So, too, does their willingness to paint exactly the same subject time and time again. These hushed and picky paintings would bore the viewer more were they not so prayerful. These artists must have felt that by diligently painting all His leaves and blossoms that they were praising God.
The show includes Arthur Rackham's charming "Titania from 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.' " She wears a pre-Raphaelite hairdo and the wings of a butterfly. The watercolor show closes June 15. 'Swimmers' Photographs -------
With the cool of spring departing and the heat about to hit, the timing is just right for "Swimmers," a pleasingly wet group show of photographs at Sandy Berler's gallery, 7002 Connecticut Ave., Chevy Chase.
Water, in paintings, is usually represented in rote accordance with one convention or another. But water in these photographs is never twice the same. Water, in life or movies, is a more familiar substance than the glassy, still, translucent stuff we experience here. Its colors alter constantly. Sometimes, as in Larry Sultan's oddly ominous images (Sultan is also showing now at the WPA), water is gray as smoke -- sometimes it is blue, pink or black or green.
There is something disturbing about many of these images. Wet skin does not look like skin; it often looks reptilian, and bodies under water do not have the heft of bodies on dry ground. Waders in their swimming pools stand weightlessly on tiptoe. Breasts and bellies float. Water distorts. The diver here in a well-known Andre Kertesz image from 1917 looks as if his head has dissolved, and his arms have thinned to sticks.
Another famous image, made at Coney Island by Garry Winogrand, shows a swimmer swimming with a duck and a pig.
The sense of otherworldliness that activates this show is most clearly felt in the color prints of Jerry Gordon, who so positions his encased camera that we see, in one shot, both the underwater realm and the realm above. A man wades unconcernedly in a pool in Florida; his enormous torso somehow has been shoved off to the left. A woman rests upon a float in a California swimming pool; she has the body of a human, but her dangling arms and legs look more like tendrils than limbs. One of the finest pictures here was taken by Elaine Mays. It shows what seems to be a splash. The viewer must look twice to see the Venus in the foam. The show closes June 13.