Watercolours (Tate Britain)

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Currently running at Tate Britain is an exhibition on this history of the watercolour in art, and since my dad has been very much into painting with watercolours in recent years I felt an interest in going to see what the Tate made of the medium.

I confess, I’m not a huge fan of the sort of twee watercolours you see of local landmarks pedalled to tourists everywhere you go; they’re pleasant but generally somewhat insipid unless done really well by someone with real talent. I also admit that I went to the exhibition expecting to see lots of such efforts, both good and bad; but the Tate’s strapline for this show is “challenge your preconceptions of what watercolour is” – and it really delivered on that.

I was also dubious about the show for another reason: I tend to like exhibitions where you follow an author’s life and his (or her) development as an artist, and see his talent and ideas grow through the decades. You don’t get that with this exhibition, which spans some 800 years and features dozens of different artists’ work. There’s a real risk that such a show just becomes a parade of ‘nice’ paintings without any overall linking theme or story to bring them together.

It’s a big compliment, then, when I say how impressed I was at how the Tate’s curators have taken all these varied works by various artists and fashioned a coherent and interesting story from them. Instead of being able to follow a single artist’s progression and growth, the show allows us to follow the medium’s progression and growth to the point where the medium is not only the message but a vital and vivid character in what you’re seeing. From its early days as a way of adding informational colouring to academic depictions of flora and faunas, through to its development as a more sophisticated painting style, its “mid life crisis of confidence” where it tried to mimic oil paintings, to its rediscovery as a more self-assured medium able to explore its own strengths, it’s a fascinating and eye-opening tale. Particularly striking was how watercolours often looked more bold and modern than their classic by convention-bound stuffy oil counterparts of the same age.

I was also amazed at the sheer variety of paintings on display. Yes, there were a few of what I would call the ‘expected’ watercolour style – a few Turners in there as well – but it was the paintings that managed to be vivid and bold and yet make the most of the water-based medium, often with augmentation from pen, ink, charcoal and/or gouache that really changed my mind about what a watercolour could and should be; the displays charting the tools and methods of watercolour painting were also fascinating and revelatory.

A quick list of my personal favourites would be the towering Source of Scaur by Andy Goldsworthy; the fascinating modern spin on landscape painting Valley and River, Northumberland by Edward Burra; the astonishingly bold abstract Untitled 1990 by Anish Kapoor which adds dirt as a texture into the vibrant red hues on a blackwashed canvas; and the utterly divine The Blue Night, Venice by Arthur Melville.

Any exhibition that challenges and overturns my preconceptions, and makes me look not just at specific paintings but a whole style and medium with new eyes is a big success in my book.

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