Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Watercolour as an Art Form

Tate Britain is about to embark on a major new exhibition of watercolours, with an express aim to push an often overlooked creative medium to the forefront of artistic debate. Judging by the lively discussion which has already erupted in the art world, it would appear that Tate is well on the way to succeeding in this ambition.

The debate centres on the merits of watercolours as an art form, or indeed their lack thereof. It is fair to say that, up to now at least, conventional thinking has often dismissed watercolour as the poor anaemic cousin of oil painting. This is mainly due to the pale, translucent quality of watercolours which are sometimes regarded as insipid, bland, even feeble when compared to the vibrancy of oils. Indeed, the dream-like, ephemeral nature of watercolours promotes an image of transient impermanence, while the opposite is true of the stronger, energetic oil paintings. In short, the general consensus seems to be that while oils pack a punch, watercolours whimper softly in the background.

The Tate exhibition challenges this status quo. Featuring a wide array of works which date from the 13th century to the present day, including early maps by a Benedictine monk to miniature portraits of Henry VIII, the show highlights how watercolours have played an important part in witnessing and recording our long and varied history. This broad collection of subjects also deftly contradicts the notion that watercolour is merely a medium favoured by novice painters who like to dabble in nature scenes. The perception that watercolours depict a limp representation of real life is also challenged. Eric Taylor’s 1945 painting, Human Wreckage at Belsen, proves that watercolour can portray disturbing and harrowing scenes every bit as effectively as oils.

So, will watercolour shake off the shackles of a long-standing dubious reputation to emerge as a respected medium in its own right? Why not go along to the exhibition and decide for yourself?

Linbury Galleries, Tate Britain
16 February – 21 August 2011
Entry Fee £12.50 (Concessions £10.50)
Free to Tate Members and Tate Patrons

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