Watercolour at Tate Britain

I actually went to see this exhibition about a week or so ago, but I’ll just jot down some belated impressions. It is, as the title suggests, a historical survey of watercolour painting, from the medieval to the present.

There are only a handful of medieval pieces, bits of illuminated manuscript, which just serve as a reminder that, although they are not what we usually think of as ‘watercolour’, that is technically what they are.

The exhibition makes the interesting point that originally watercolour was mainly seen as an adjunct to drawing: a work would be drawn in pencil or ink and then effectively coloured in, sometimes just with a few hint of colour to liven the drawing and sometimes in a more thorough way. So many of the early pieces are technical works of one kind or another: costume designs for Elizabethan masques, maps, plans of fortifications, as well as a few specific uses like portrait miniatures.

That technical aspect leads on to what is probably my favourite room of the exhibition, a room of scientific illustrations; especially botanical illustrations but also birds and mammals. Many of these were lent by the Natural History Museum or Kew, which is a clear sign that they were not originally created as Art, but they are gorgeous things. It even included some lovely C19th paintings of rock types — each one is a lump of rock on a plain white background, and they look like an elegantly minimalist conceptual art project.

After that we get into watercolour as an artistic medium in its own right. This includes plenty of ‘typical’ watercolours — landscapes, basically — but also a variety of paintings chosen at least partially to challenge that stereotype. So we have a room of war paintings, a room of ‘visionary’ paintings, a room of exhibition watercolours (i.e. large-scale C19th narrative paintings designed to compete with oil paintings for gravitas), and a room of contemporary work using watercolour.

My single biggest problem with the exhibition is that C19th British painting is not something I particularly enjoy. And that was the golden age of watercolour. So the aesthetic of the paintings was more off-putting than anything to do with watercolour as a medium. The exhibition watercolours seemed particularly pointless. I don’t like Victorian narrative painting and find the Pre-Raphaelites exceptionally noxious; seeing them painted in watercolour instead of oils didn’t make them any more likeable. Especially since there was no obvious attempt to make a virtue of the different medium: rather they seemed to be straining to make watercolours look as much like oil as possible.

And some of the paintings had clearly faded, which is the great technical problem of watercolour as a medium. There’s nothing much you can do about that, but it is a pity. There was a painting of some sun-drenched imperial outpost (Egypt? India?) which just didn’t look very hot, and I think it had probably faded a bit. So the shadows weren’t as dark, and the tones weren’t as warm.

As you can tell, I wasn’t blown away. But every room had something of interest and something covetable. And every so often there was a painting which was gorgeous and which could only have been done with watercolour: liquid and light and translucent. So it’s well worth a visit.

» The painting of the Lion-haired macaque, Macaca silenus, is by an unknown Chinese artist working for John Reeves, who employed locals to paint the specimens he was collecting while working in Canton from 1812-1831. That particular work is not in the Tate, though they do have a different monkey from the Reeves collection, lent by the NHM.

Gauguin at Tate Modern

So, I went along to the Tate’s big Gauguin show the other day… which to be honest was slightly disappointing. Not least because nothing seemed very surprising; I wouldn’t have said I knew Gauguin’s work very well, and I would have expected to learn more or see something new, but not really.

Obviously I hadn’t seen every piece of work before, although quite a few of them had turned up in previous exhibitions, like ‘From Russia’ or ‘Rebels and Martyrs’, or were from the Tate or the Courtauld anyway. But even those which were new to me generally felt like more of the same. Not just because he developed a fairly distinctive style and stuck to it, but because his hit rate isn’t that great: the best of his paintings are genuinely gorgeous things, but they seem to be heavily outnumbered by ones which are just a bit underwhelming.

And at the risk of sounding like a complete philistine: they are also disappointingly small. I think one reason they are almost work better in reproduction is that you can see a photograph and imagine the original painting as a large, impressive piece, when in reality they are rather small and cramped. I guess I wouldn’t expect him to be painting huge, wall-filling canvases in his hut in Tahiti, but fair or not, that was my reaction.

There is also of course the uneasy politics of the work: Gauguin was a colonial sex tourist who painted the Tahitians in his own version of traditional Polynesian myths, even though they had in fact long since converted to Christianity. One myth is as good as another as far as I’m concerned, but the fact he completely ignored the reality of Tahitian life in favour of preconceived images of the innocent noble savage, even while living with his thirteen-year old ‘wife’ — it’s all a bit icky.

Since this review has been so negative, I guess I should reiterate: I still think the best of his work is pretty great. I just didn’t enjoy the exhibition as much as I thought I might.

‘Venice: Canaletto and his Rivals’ at the National Gallery

On to more cheerful subjects — I went to see the Canaletto exhibition at the NG the other day. Which i enjoyed, entirely predictably; because I’m not sure Canaletto is one of the very greatest painters in the European tradition, but he is one of the most likeable. I’ve never seen a Canaletto I wouldn’t like to own. He clearly had a bit of conveyer belt going on at one stage, producing standard views of Venice for English tourists, but even at their most formulaic, his paintings are cheerful, decorative and full of engaging details.

This exhibition puts his career in the context of other painters of Venetian view paintings at the time, which makes for interesting comparisons. For example, there are three paintings displayed alongside each other of regattas on the Grand Canal, one by Canaletto and the others by, I think, Michele Marieschi and Bernardo Bellotto. The stylistic differences are interesting, but the most striking thing is how differently they portray the physical reality of the scene; the canal is about half as wide in the Marieschi* as the Canaletto, presumably to create a livelier, more crowded scene.

The other two most notable things, for me, were Canaletto’s early style and the works of Francesco Guardi. Canaletto’s earliest paintings of Venice were rather looser, with much broader brushstrokes; but they are also greyer and a bit grittier. They don’t have that amazing glowing Mediterranean light which is so much part of the later works, but also they make Venice look a bit shabby, a bit dirty; a city of faded glories. There’s a painting of St Mark’s square with market stalls clustered around the bottom of the basilica and campanile, and the size of the building makes the rather ragged stalls and people look paltry and insignificant, while the stalls in turn undercut the grandeur of the basilica.

I wouldn’t want to read too much into it — I daresay he was aiming for straightforward realism rather than biting social commentary — but it does make you realise how much more flattering his later paintings are. They are all glowing and sparkly, and while they do still have disreputable looking characters in them, they now look like lively local colour rather than slightly seedy. I have to say I rather liked the early paintings, but I can see why it was the later work that was so commercially successful. I don’t know whether he consciously changed his style specifically to make his work more marketable: it seems quite likely. And why not, after all.

And the Francesco Guardi paintings were interesting to me just because I was unfamiliar with his work. It’s much more stylised than Canaletto, with suggestive little brushstrokes and curious little pin-headed figures. You can see why his work was rediscovered and celebrated by C19th artists as being ahead of his time; he’s clearly moving in the direction of painters like, to make the obvious Venice comparison, Turner. Like Turner, he favoured scenes with a lot of water and sky — boats on the lagoon, rather than, or as well as, more architectural subjects.

* I think. I suppose I could try taking notes at these exhibitions if I’m going to blog about them later… nah.

» The picture is a detail from Francesco Guardi’s Venice: The Giudecca with the Zitelle.

‘The Wyeth Family’ at DPG

The Wyeth Family: Three Generations of American Art is an interesting little exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery.

There are three main Wyeths featured: N.C. Wyeth, an illustrator notable for cheerily technicolor illustrations for books of adventure stories; his son Andrew Wyeth, the most famous of the three, who painted highly realistic, formally composed, rather chilly new England landscapes, often with figures in them; and his son Jamie Wyeth, who paints rather freer, rather more colourful paintings, also largely of New England subjects. Andrew is clearly the pick of the bunch, though I certainly would have loved reading books with N.C.’s illustrations when I was a child… you’ve got to love pictures with titles like Sir Nigel Sustains England’s Honor in the Lists, Up and down went the long, shining blades with flash of sparks at every parry. Jamie is the least interesting of the three.

Although there can’t have been many exhibitions which cover the whole C20th, from 1916 to the present, and show less influence of Modernism. This really is Ron Silliman’s School of Quietude in paint. But since the SoQ appellation always annoyed me when applied to poetry, I’m not going to complain on that basis. Avant-Gardeism for its own sake doesn’t strike me as particularly worthy, and I’ve seen far too much boring contemporary art already, thank you. On the other hand, if you are going to be this technically conservative, you’d better be good, because unambitious mediocrity is really deadening. Andrew Wyeth I think clearly is good enough and distinctive enough to stand out from the crowd a bit… I’m not sure Jamie Wyeth is, though.

‘Mini Picture Show’ at the Bankside Gallery

I was given a membership of The Art Fund for Christmas. For those who don’t know, The Art Fund uses membership fees and other donations to help British museums and galleries to buy art for their collections; membership gets you discounted or free entry to a range of museums and galleries. So that was a nice present.

Anyway, they sent me a booklet with all the various participating venues in it; there are 78 in London. I’m familiar with quite a lot of them, but there are still plenty that are new to me. It occurred to me that it would be quite an interesting exercise to visit all of them; I’m not officially committing myself to that right now, but it’s certainly a possible project. I might as well get my money’s worth.

In that spirit, when I went to buy coffee today I glanced at the map to see if there were any galleries near Borough Market, and sure enough, there was the Bankside Gallery, just next to Tate Modern. I’ve been past the Bankside many times, but I’ve obviously been suffering from Curiosity Fail because I never went in. It turns out to be the gallery of the Royal Watercolour Society and the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers.* Or perhaps the shop of those societies, since the work was all for sale; except that places selling art have done an excellent PR job of making sure that we think of them as part of a subtly different category from places that sell fridges or mayonnaise. Their current line of produce is

Work on a small scale by Members of the Royal Watercolour Society and the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers. Original paintings and prints are immediately available, both framed and unframed, with prices from just £50.

Which I’m guessing is basically an exhibition aimed at the Christmas present market. And why not, after all. I actually rather like going around exhibitions where everything has a price next to it; it focusses the mind a bit.

It reminded me of the rooms at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition where they stick all the small pieces, although the art wasn’t quite crowded together as it normally is at the RA. It’s the same mixture of stuff, tending toward the conventional, occasionally very covetable. Certainly well worth popping in and having a look round for the bargain price of free, and I shall do so again from time to time (to be clear, the Bankside has free entry for everyone, not just Art Fund members).

So, this may turn out to the be the first in a long series of posts about some of London’s more obscure museums and galleries; or it may not. We’ll see.

* The Royal Watercolour Society is the RWS; the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers is the RE. Obviously.

» The images are ‘Rikyu Tea Whisk’ and ‘Tea Bowl’ from the ‘One Hundred Views of MITATE’ series by Nana Shiomi. Which I really liked.

Divisionist Painters at the National Gallery

Radical Light: Italy’s Divisionist Painters 1891-1910, to give the exhibition its full title. Divisionism is a style of painting where the image is built up of lots of individual brushstrokes of pure colour which, ideally, merge together for the viewer but create a more luminous effect than if the colours were blended on the palette.

Angelo Morbelli, 'In the Rice Fields', 1898-1901, © the owner

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s Pointillism under a different name. Apparently the Divisionists had heard about Pointillism and were inspired by it but hadn’t actually seen the paintings; they generally use long thin brushstrokes rather than the little dabs favoured by Seurat, but the principle is the same. Divisionism was also apprently an important stepping stone towards Futurism, the rather more famous Italian art movement.
 
I didn’t have very high expectations — I think obscure artistic movements are often obscure for a reason, I don’t like Seurat that much, and it got a bad review in Time Out — but, perhaps because of that, I enjoyed it. Some of the symbolist and political stuff had aged badly, but there were some really very likeable landscapes. Since the optical effect which is the whole point of Divisionism is destroyed by reproducing them as little jpegs, the pictures on the website don’t do them justice, but hey-ho.

» The picture above, taken from the exhibition website, is Angelo Morbelli’s ‘In the Rice Fields’, 1898-1901, © the owner

British Orientalist Painting at Tate Britain

The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting is an exhibition of ‘the responses of British artists to the cultures and landscapes of the Near and Middle East between 1780 and 1930’. So the East here is Cairo, Jerusalem and Constantinople, and not Bombay, Singapore or Nagasaki.

Unknown artist, Sir Robert Shirley, Envoy from Shah 'Abbas of Persia to the Courts of Europe, before 1628

You can hardly touch on the subject without a name-check for one of the few bits of cultural theorising that’s so famous that even I’ve heard of it, and the Tate mentions it right up front:

In the 1970s the Palestinian-American academic Edward Said published his treatise on Orientalism, initiating a global debate over Western representations of the Middle East. For many, such representations now appeared to be a sequence of fictions serving the West’s desire for superiority and control over the East.

So I went round with that argument somewhat in mind, and I had a yeah-but-no-but reaction to it. The Tate’s one-sentence summary of the argument — a sequence of fictions serving the West’s desire for superiority and control — makes it sound like a coordinated propaganda effort to push a particular agenda, and it clearly isn’t that; but then I imagine that Said’s original book was rather more nuanced anyway.

Yes, there’s a focus on the picturesque and the exotic, and a certain superficiality in the images, and some particular subjects which bring out the worst in the artists, like the slave markets and the harem. And I’m sure they did travel around with a bone-deep sense of their own culture’s superiority. But to offer a couple of points in lukewarm defence: firstly, this is tourist art. Most of the artists travelled in the region for a year or two, so it’s a rather more immersive kind of travel than most modern tourism, but still, these are visitors painting for the British market. I think much of the picturesqueness can be explained simply by their tourist status, without the need to invoke some kind of deep cultural agenda. Not that the two ideas are mutually exclusive.

The other point is this. The bulk of the work here is C19th, and when you look at C19th paintings on other subjects — scenes from Shakespeare, or the Bible, or British history, or even contemporary life — you see a similar tendency towards the picturesque, the colourful, the sentimental and the didactic. These were not people keen on ambivalence and self-doubt.

Arthur Melville, An Arab Interior, 1881, National Gallery of Scotland

The one subject where cultural differences collide most spectacularly is the harem. Obviously, none of the male artists had ever been inside a harem — there’s not much point in sequestering your women if you let a load of nosy foreigners come in and paint them — and the idea of them came to occupy a rather sweaty part of the artists’ imaginations. The harem paintings in this exhibition are relatively tame (apparently French versions had rather more flesh on display), but they are clearly an opportunity to paint some exotic totty, rather than a sensitive and nuanced exploration of cultural difference. There’s one painting by a woman who had actually been inside a harem, and apparently it caused a minor sensation at the time for revealing what the harem was really like: not in fact a rich, tapestry-draped, incense filled hothouse full of scantily clad odalisques, but a rather plain domestic interior full of woman doing boring domestic stuff.

Other paintings were perhaps not exotic enough. There’s a great scene in Brideshead Revisited, where Charles Ryder, having established his reputation as a painter of country houses and English scenery, has been on a trip to South America, and has been getting rave reviews for an exhibition of South American scenes when Anthony Blanche turns up, takes him to a seedy gay bar and precedes to eviscerate the pictures.

“Oh, the pictures,” they said; “they’re most peculiar.” “Not at all what he normally does.” “Very forceful.” “Quite barbaric.” “I call them downright unhealthy,” said Mrs Stuyvesant Oglander.

‘My dear, I could hardly keep still in my chair. I wanted to dash out of the house and leap in a taxi and say, “Take me to Charles’s unhealthy pictures.” […] and what did I find? I found, my dear, a very naughty and very successful practical joke. It reminded me of dear Sebastian when he liked so much to dress up in false whiskers. It was charm again, my dear, simple, creamy English charm, playing tigers.’

There was certainly something of that about the exhibition: a failure, for example, to communicate any sense of heat.

I chose the two paintings here because I like them, rather than because they’re typical. In fact, I like them because they’re not typical. Most of the paintings left me underwhelmed, and that’s my real problem with the show; it’s fairly interesting, but it didn’t excite me very often as art.

» The paintings, both taken from the exhibition website, are Sir Robert Shirley, Envoy from Shah ‘Abbas of Persia to the Courts of Europe, painted by an unknown artist before 1628, from the collection of R.J. Berkeley; and Arthur Melville’s An Arab Interior, 1881, from the National Gallery of Scotland.

The Muybridge Problem

I was wondering this morning why it is that narrative paintings always seem to fall so flat for a modern viewer (i.e. me). Not just those cheesy C19th paintings with titles like A Soldier Returns; even paintings by artists I find more sympathetic — Rembrandt, Goya, Velazquez — seem very obviously unconvincing when they try to capture a spontaneous moment. It occurred to me that the explanation might simply be what you could call the Muybridge problem.

Famously, Eadweard Muybridge started taking his high-speed photographs in an attempt to answer the question: do horses ever have all four hooves off the ground when they gallop? The answer turned out to be yes: but not quite what everyone expected. Before that, even someone as devoted to the careful study of the horse as Stubbs had painted galloping horses with all four feet off the ground when their legs were outstretched; in fact a galloping horse only has all feet off the ground when they are bent underneath it.

But if you have seen lots of photos of running horses, all those old paintings of horses flying like Superman over Epsom Downs look faintly but irretrievably ludicrous. Photography has permanently changed what we think things look like; and that doesn’t just apply to horses.

» The Stubbs is a detail from Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath, with a Trainer, a Stable-Lad, and a Jockey; the Muybridge is a detail from The Horse in Motion, both from Wikimedia Commons.

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