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Does art always have to change?

The watercolour exhibition at the Tate Britain is for the most part an excellent show.

Turner; the Blue Rigi Sunrise

It highlights the special qualities of the medium and the skill and technical achievements of its greatest exponents. Thomas Girtin’s ‘White house Chelsea’ is exhibited besides Turner’s ‘The Blue Rigi’; Ravilious’s ‘Vale of the White Horse’ can be seen alongside Bauden, Piper and Surtherland and Charles Rennie Mackintosh makes an appearance with his view of ‘Fetges ‘1927, part of as series of watercolours painted at the end of his life in the South of France.
Samuel Palmer

From botanical painting in exquisite detail, to Victorian pre-Raphaelite inspired watercolour and with an appearance by Victor Hugo ‘Souvenire of Normandie’ 1859, this exhibition allows the painters who use this too easily disparaged medium, to shine.
Such is the case with Edward Burra (1905-76), an individualistic 20th Century exponent of the medium whose figurative and late landscapes have a rightful place in this review of the best of British Watercolour.
Edward Burra. Valley and River, Northumberland

His painting ‘Valley and River Northumberland ‘1972 hangs near to Francis Towne’s “Source of the Arveyron ‘ 1781 for an interesting comparison.
Mackintosh Fetges

The final rooms however are a disappointment, because it is here that the curators start to ignore the living tradition of contemporary watercolour and instead desperately search around to find examples by the Tate Gallery’s officially designated Contemporary Artists. Thus we have the obligatory appearance of Tracy Emin with some scribbled reminiscences of a week in Berlin and a nod towards Marcel Duchamp by Bethany Huws with her minimalist brushstroke homage to his bicycle wheel assisted readymade.
However it is in the false assumption that all art mediums have to continuously change and evolve that the curators then try to convince the audience to accept Acrylic painting on Canvas, feebly painted twigs, a pigment covered spoon and a sculptural hanging made of Cellophane, Vaseline, hair gel toothpaste, acrylic, emulsion paint and somewhere among all that a bit of watercolour, as a contemporary manifestation of the medium.
Watercolour painting is alive and well in this country and the major showing each year is the Sunday Times Watercolour exhibition. However, if you can ignore its failings, this show at the Tate Gallery is well worth seeing.
James Cowan
Course leader Fine Art.


Posted by author: Jim
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2 thoughts on “Does art always have to change?

  • I couldn’t agree more.
    Knowing that the cream of all watercolours would be on show, I relished the exhibition eagerly hoping that there would be ravishing gems from contemporary craftsmen/women in the art. The last gallery was vacant of visitors after the crush of the other rooms.
    Like you, my thrill of the (Singer Friedlander/Sunday Times and even the RA Summer Exhibition, dare I say) current watercolourists is bold and daring and beautiful – even rooted in tradition.
    Where are they at the Tate?

  • THis doesn’t bode well for my forthcoming assessment as I found the last 2 rooms of the exhibition by far the most interesting.
    The remit of the exhibition according to the Tate is to challenge your preconceptions of what watercolour is. So with that in mind its hardly surprising if they include some non-traditional type of work.
    I found Bethan Huws watercolours very evocative and Karla Blacks polythene construction made me wonder if she was actually exploring the idea of the macho male painterly mark using “female” and household materials – I found it very thought provoking and also visually interesting. I could go on there was plenty to enjoy in the last room, but in case anyone has the wrong impression – it was entitled abstraction and included sketches by Turner, and “blots” by Cozens, and works by Hodgkin, Mckeever, etc. Maybe Jim is complaining about “abstraction” generally not just its contemporary manifestation.

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