Tate watercolour preview
Preview 15 Feb
From the velveteen gouache purple explosion of Arthur Church’s detailed botanical study of an orchid to the blood red scars on the bleached white canvas of Sandra Blow’s “Vivace”, the “Watercolour” exhibition at Tate Britain is revelatory and drips with inspiration and tears away preconception.
So enough of the arty phraseology…
Room 1: Starting at the beginning and painted in the 17th century John Dunstall’s “Pollard Oak” looks set in a Magritte-coloured landscape, I’m not sure what it was about it, but I half-expected Edward Scissorhands to emerge stage right. Have a look at it, and see what you think. The beautiful etching by Gabriel Smith of Sydney Parkinson’s “Honeysuckle” was a study of observation and homage to the skill of etching (yeh, yeh, I know I was more intrigued by the engraving than the watercolour original on this one, but it just proves the curatorial skill of the gallery, as it put the painting in context by relating it to printed reproduction).
Room 2: I love John Ruskin. I’ve recently been dipping into his writings again and have been spouting forth to anyone who will listen, on the value he placed on observation. He thought that everyone, in any walk of life, would do well and profit from drawing. The idea being that drawing teaches you to observe and process what you see, not just take it as read, not just make it up, but to really examine and plan, note balance and structure, perspective and composition. Cerebral skills that some would argue a lot of politicians and people in business would be good to try sometime. Anyway, I digress. Featured in the exhibition is his study of a parched autumnal leaf, curling and spotted on an intense sea of blue velvet (painted after the main leaf study by the way). The orange tint of the leaf seems to make the leaf dance on the azure blue. Before you leave this room, make sure you take in Rachel Pedder-Smith’s study of legumes and seeds. Born in 1975, it made me feel a little humble, that someone younger than me, albeit by just a bit (I’m hanging in there!), could have such mastery, dexterity and visual confidence. The whole white paper looks strewn with, but each is carefully spaced, little seed heads, every one an accurate examination but together they form a cohesive composition. With my licensing head on, I can see this image reproduced on tea-towels, melamine and mugs! John Lewis, the Eden project and the National Trust would go bonkers for it as a starter for ten! Anyway, enough of the money making, Ness…
Room 3: My eye was drawn to John Piper’s rock in the corner of the room. The black sketchiness of the skin of the boulder stretches its inked architectural netting across the surface of the cold hard rock, while an almost volcanic splattering of earth explodes behind. To the right of it, a few paintings along, is a Mackintosh. Ok, this is where art deco meets nature. Just look at the smooth, almost iced glacial rocks in the foreground to the left and the chain-mailesque of the green fields. The palette is so light and a yellowy green, the shadows so sharp, the early morning obviously conducive to his crispness of style.
Room 4: Edward Dayes’ “The Fall of Rebel Angels” had my memory tumbling into what I thought was an early Blake painting. There is a Blake in this room, and some other amazing examples, but my eye was caught by a rather engaging gentleman wearing an amazing red velvet(?) suit. He sat cross legged on the central bench seat, relaxed among the many visitors moving around him like a current. He was flicking through the catalogue on the seat next to him. Was he wearing a hat? I don’t know, but in my memory he looks like he should have been. Funny, isn’t it, how you’re drawn to some people and you have no idea. I so wanted to go over and make conversation. Probably for the first time in my life I didn’t. I was waiting for my fashion designer friend from Hong Kong who was joining me later, and I think I didn’t want to look like I was on the pick up! Anyway, if somehow, you are that gentleman wearing red at the Preview, and are randomly reading this, I just want to say “hello,” and that I would have loved to have had a conversation about the exhibition with you, as you looked as though you would have had an opinion and some kind of insight. Maybe he was a painter himself? Hey ho, I might never know! Anyway, moving on..
Room 5: I didn’t have much time in this room, well apart from sitting writing on the bench seat myself. There’s an interesting collection of watercolour implements(!): from brushes to little square watercolour pans. As you look back to the left of the arch you’ve just come in through, you’re teased with the sexual intensity of Anish Kapoor’s helpfully entitled “Untitled 1990”. A deep black clitoris slits through strokes of crimson paint and to me is a romp in colour and sexual arousal. Earth is engulfed in the redness surrounding the vertical dark void, which a friend said later when I showed him the preview booklet, was like a dancing bear… Go see for yourself. And talking of interpretation, the stark black Rorschach-like paintings of Alexander Cozens in the final room would have a psychologist dancing with glee or heart tremors if they learnt what I saw in each of the three!
Room 6: It was nice to be reminded of Edward Burra, his work reminds me, rightly or wrongly, of comic book outlines like a sketchbook for theatrical stage design. Such was my opinion again when I saw his work, but the next night I was in a café chatting to a friend and really looking at “Soldiers at Rye” and was amazed at the surreal level of detail and almost abstraction in the physical composition of the bodies, the political statement of the futility and facelessness of war and aggression, where the main protagonists, indeed all the protagonists are masked characters, like grotesque venetian birds picking each other over with bloodletting intensity. The fabric of the crimson gore in the foreground seems to get wound up in the feet of the soldiers. I really must go back and look at it for some length.
Room 7: OK, who knew that Victor Hugo painted? I confess, that I did not, or if I did, I had completely forgotten. Now I love his novels, and his paintings reflect his gothic darkness. I stood and stared at the example the Tate has chosen to include. Lots of people quickly scanned the images, and waltzed past. I took notes, and then noticed something. I jogged the arm of the woman who unfortunately for her maybe was lurking next to me, and said, “look, he’s painted the frame”. He had signed his name rather naively to the right of the wooden frame, curly letters chasing the next around the corner of the dark oak, emerging in the snaked stem of a flower whose head graced to the top of the frame. In its honesty, it reminded me of a child’s fridge painting, I think it was the naïve writing style. Kind of ‘look it’s me, I did this’. Needless to say, there was an echo for at least ten minutes after I went away as one person overheard the next person saying, “Ooh, look, Victor Hugo painted the frame.”
To the right of this, is another Blake, the distinctive oil-rig elongated arms of Hekate, holding the old dear up in the centre of the painting. Also Edmund Dulac’s oceanic dream-like setting of his “Entomologist’s Dream” just HAS to be seen.
Room 8 (or is this still Room 7?): just before you enter the final room (room 9) are three Tracey Emins, which left me unusually empty and unthought-provoked, so don’t linger too long there, but instead, wander over to the comedic series of David Austen. A fun ephemeral transparent quadruplet of Lowry-esque (I know, I’m into my “esques” in this review!) physiques, which includes a man in a pink top hat. ANY painting in a national gallery which depicts a man in a pink top hat gets my vote. They are as fun as they are interesting studies in the lightness of watercolour too.
Room 9: (or the final one, I’ve lost my numbers!): Go see go see Sandra Blow’s “Vivace” which I kick started this piece with. A bright pillar-box red V tips itself to the side and into the centre of the canvas, while a rainbow of torn strips stagger off to the right, like multi-coloured pastel teeth, grinning at the abstract lips. I’m getting more and more into abstract, I think, because it lets your mind enter into itself and encourages interpretation. The best piece in this room though is Ian McKever’s ghostlike seedheads, which huddle like enshrouded nuns. White globulous space pustules float across a charcoal canvas. Spacedust spits and punctuates the black void behind. An algae of green watercolour verdigrises across the virginal white balletic movement of the pendulous moving bubbles, conjuring an imagined safari into “2001: A Space Odyssey”. I wonder why I seem to be alone in my fascination of this piece, everyone else moves past. Take some time, and let yourself float in front of it for a while, step close, then back, you’ll see it move and come alive.
So that’s it, well, apart from the other hundred or more paintings, which really are an amazing collection when experienced all together. You really can appreciate the adaptability of watercolour, the strength of the medium. Just look at the purple dilation of Patrick Heron’s “January 9” which explodes with musical reality and then compare it to the electric luminescent vibrancy of William Hunt. Same medium, different artist. Go see the exhibition, then go home, and for ever you will consign to the trash all preconception of what a watercolour is.
Watercolour, it’s not all about flowers and landscapes, it’s about expression and creation. Enjoy.