Tate Britain Watercolour Exhibition

7 Jun

The Watercolour exhibition at the Tate is possibly the best exhibition I have ever been to.  Really well curated and just pretty darn amazing.  I don’t believe I am bigging it up as I think if you are interested in art this is a must see.

Until fairly recently watercolours had always brought to mind insipid Jane Austen-esque* landscapes and children’s art time.  Over the last few months I have discovered this is not true and this exhibition has only served to show me how versatile and amazing this medium is.  And the fact that even an amateur can pick up a box I think is one of the great credits of watercolour as it means that so many different artists have influenced the depth and variety of the medium.

Watercolours (and other water based media like tempera and gouache) seem to have been initially used in incredibly detailed miniture paintings and portraits, maps and illustrated manuscripts.  The detail in these are absolutely incredible.  I can only imagine the brushes they used must have had two hairs to allow the intricate detail, with lace, hair and tiny little features.  This portrait is an example although not one from the actual exhibit.  Imagine this is probably smaller then it probably appears on your computer!

From the 17th century watercolour was used to record flora and fauna.  These amazingly accurate drawings were useful in spreading scientific knowledge.  Don’t you just love when art and science come together?  The ease with which you could throw some paints in your bag also made them a useful way to record travels.   A way of capturing foreign and exotic places and landscapes before the camera was around.  These images went from dreamy floaty qualities like Turner and this one from Arthur Melville (1897)

to incredibly detailed like this one from John Frederick Lewis (1857)

The idea that all watercolour is dreamy and light was blasted out of the water by the room titled “Watercolour and War”.  Again the ability to transport it so easily meant that artists were able to take their little palettes out to the frontline.  Some of the pictures were pretty gruesome and some really dark and unsettling.  Although not a war scene this series by Edward Burra I found particularly interesting, almost surrealist with only a few colours.

Throughout its history it has been a medium which arists have experimented with and the different techniques means that pictures have qualities that I think are very similar to other medium – some paintings looked like oils and even pastels.  Surprisingly, even contemporary artists like Tracy Emin and Anish Kapoor had pieces in the exhibition.

Basically it is an amazing exhibition and you should go.  It was so good in fact I might go again.  It is open until 21 August and though it costs just over £12 it is well worth it.  I would suggest you set aside at least two hours.  Unfortunately we only had an hour and a half and we hadn’t quite finished by the time the museum closed.

Sources: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

* Don’t take this to mean that I am not incredibly fond of Miss Austen.


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