Tate Britain’s new watercolour exhibition

Is Tate allergic to beauty? The solo exhibitions this winter at the four Tates – Susan Hiller at Millbank, Gabriel Orozco at Bankside, Simon Starling at St Ives and Nam June Paik in Liverpool – certainly deliver a dry, cerebral, conceptualist view of what art is about. Watercolour, Tate Britain’s new exhibition, promises something startlingly different.

In an age when artists use elephant dung or light bulbs as readily as the brush or camera, it is brave to focus on a painterly medium. Tate does so at broad range, and at once strikes dead preconceptions about watercolour’s gentle domestic character. An arresting red-eyed monkey, “Lion-haired Macaque”, mesmerises in the first room – the work of an anonymous Cantonese artist overlaying Chinese ornamental style with the natural history traditions of the European Enlightenment. Samuel Palmer’s intense landscapes painted on wood show watercolour’s translucent effects suiting the mystical strain that always coursed through British art. Callum Innes’s abstractions, created by floating washes of pigment across paper, then in part wiping them away, demonstrate that watercolour can deliver the meditative pleasures of monochrome and minimalism. An unexpected gouache and earth crimson-on-black textural work by Anish Kapoor brings it close to sculpture.

Yet if the idea behind the exhibition is a populist masterstroke, offering something for everyone to enjoy, its execution betrays an intellectual insecurity that will satisfy none. Precisely because 21st-century hierarchies between media have entirely collapsed, this show cannot decide where it is going. Is it celebrating watercolour or mourning its disappearance? Is it chronological or combative? British or global? Worst, in its zeal to challenge assumptions about the medium, Tate omits most of the greatest, loveliest watercolours in history.

At the heart of the show’s battle between quality and theory stands, inevitably, Turner. “The Blue Rigi” became the world’s most expensive watercolour because it combines freshness and immediacy with the thrilled conviction of newly acquired mastery. It hangs here alongside Thomas Girtin’s “The White House”, and the pair encapsulate how between the 1790s and 1840s British artists transformed watercolour from the documentary to the expressive. Exploiting the medium’s speed and luminosity to evoke ephemeral effects of landscape and weather, they distilled the early 19th-century sense of man’s fleeting insignificance in watercolours whose emotional depth and technical accomplishment remain unrivalled.

The brilliant reflection in Lake Lucerne of the white morning star glimmering above the Rigi may have been Turner’s homage to Girtin’s iridescent white house serenely reflected in the Thames at Chelsea: the artists were friends and after Girtin died at 27 Turner famously remarked “had Tom Girtin lived, I should have starved”. Girtin pioneered the sublime – Tate shows “Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland”, an eroded bulk of a building merged into a rocky outcrop beneath slate-grey clouds flecked with sunbursts. But from Turner there is not another important work here.

Bizarrely, a mere copy of “Scarlet Sunrise” is included – though Tate owns the original, and many other exquisite examples. In a final insult, some loose, unfinished Turner sketches hang alongside “Vivace”, a charmless abstraction by Sandra Blow. Since this is not only dreadful but also painted in acrylic on canvas, there is no possible justification for including it. Its empty noise silences the limpid delicacy of the Turners, and mutes the few other fine works – Patrick Heron’s luscious “January 9: 1983: II”, Peter Lanyon’s fast-moving “Coast” – in a section devoted to “Abstraction and Improvisation”.

This room closes with Karla Black’s waving pink cellophane drapery “Opportunities for Girls”, a vapid installation smeared with Vaseline, shampoo, hair gel, toothpaste and – yes – a daub of watercolour: surely incidental to the conception, and to the medium’s 21st-century development.

On the other hand, completely absent is David Hockney, the artist who has truly reinvented contemporary watercolour, upping its scale, scope and argument with abstraction in landmarks such as the two-metre Spanish and Moroccan landscapes shown at the Royal Academy in 2004, and the dynamic portraits of his 2006 National Portrait Gallery show. Is Hockney out because he is perceived as a traditionalist, and Black – representing Scotland in Venice this year, and featuring in the Hayward’s current British Art Show – in because she is a fashionable, young, female name on the biennale circuit? Is this also why laughably insignificant, near-vanishing doodles by Tracey Emin, Bethan Huws and Lucy Skaer are shown at a stretch, while Howard Hodgkin’s recent experiments with monumental watercolour are excluded?

No one with any feeling for watercolours could have devised or hung this mess. Rooms arranged by subject are incoherent: the same artists and genres recur through indistinguishable sections entitled “Travel and Topography”, “The Exhibition Watercolour” and “Inner Vision”. Most are dull: 19th-century chocolate box painters such as Myles Birket Foster and pre-Raphaelite sentimentalities dominate. Of the three artists who transformed watercolour in Britain at this time, Arthur Melville is represented by a single, stunning nocturne, “The Blue Night, Venice”, Singer Sargent by two inferior pieces, Whistler not at all.

Just one section, “War and Watercolour”, presents an intelligent chronology within the thematic format. Opening with Charles Bell’s “Number 9: Sabre Wound to the Abdomen” (1815), a ghastly close-up of a disemboweled soldier at the Battle of Waterloo, it pinpoints watercolour’s use as reportage before the camera, then unravels how, freed by photography, war artists developed emotional rather than documentary realism. In “Wire”, Paul Nash paints a blasted tree shrouded in barbed wire in the Flanders trenches: watercolour is smeared with ink and chalk, creating a heavy, repellent surface – nature obliterated by war.

Graham Sutherland’s “Devastation” catches the surreal dissolution of an East End street during the Blitz; then, in “Ruin” (2008), Uwe Wittwer returns to photographic sources, overpainting a digitally copied shot of a Frankfurt bombing raid in dramatic contrasts of dark and light washes with opaque patches, to give the image new resonance. Jitish Kallat’s “Traumanama” (2009), in gouache, tea-wash, spray-paint, reimagines urban destruction as an eviscerated, leaking body – returning full-circle to Bell’s entrails.

These are pertinent works, and surprising inclusions in an exhibition that, states curator Alison Smith, “concerns the history of watercolour in Britain and the medium’s association with British identity”. Wittwer is Swiss, Kallat Indian; with them, as with Black’s cellophane extravaganza or Kapoor’s sculptural painting, Tate is presumably demonstrating that, geographically as well as formally, watercolour can be anything, anywhere. An exhilarating prospect: but in that case, why on earth not simply show the most beautiful, innovative examples ever made?

‘Watercolour’, Tate Britain, London SW1, to August 21, www.tate.org.uk

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