"Watercolour" at Tate

February 19 2011

Image of "Watercolour" at Tate

Picture: Barber Institute (detail of A Coastal Landscape by Van Dyck)

I loved this exhibition. Any show that begins with a watercolour by Van Dyck is a Good Thing. It's well worth a visit. Congratulations to Alison Smith and her colleagues.

I can't think why Richard Dorment disliked it so much. He said it was 'close' to being a 'disaster', and gave it two stars. He didn't like the inclusion of many of the artists or the subjects (such as the series of war scenes), and especially disliked the end rooms, which feature modern art's take on watercolour.

[More below]

But I wonder if he misunderstood the point of the exhibition. The star of the show was the medium - not the artists or the subjects. Instead, the exhibits reflect the immense variety that watercolour allows, from studied details of flowers to on-the-spot views of the trenches.

As a result, the exhibition is never going to be like the more focused exhibitions we have become used to. Which is good. The delicacy of watercolours means that the great majority of the exhibits are rarely on display. So this is a rare chance to see so many varied treats at once.

A highlight for me was John Singer Sargent's gripping A Crashed Airplane (above, Imperial War Museum), painted in France in the summer of 1918. Only watercolour could allow an artist to blend an apparently idyllic French rural scene and a crashed fighter plane with such authoritative immediacy. A drawing or an oil would not have had the same effect. Consequently, the curators are to be applauded for having a room devoted to war. 

However, I certainly sympathised with Dorment when I came across a plastic spoon (above; Hayley Tompkins, from Day Series, 2007, 'Gouache on wood and found object') stuck to the wall in the last room. And yet, some of the very poor works in the last room merely reveal that few can paint well with watercolour any more. And in many ways, that is the most revealing room of the show. Watercolour, RIP.

'Watercolour' runs until 21st August. Videos and more on the Tate site here.

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