ART / Water-colour and the modern artist

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UNTIL the late Sixties, the modernist emphasis on brash new media made water-colour unfashionable. Water-based acrylics, used on a heroic scale by artists like Morris Louis, were all the rage. But the onset of Pop Art, with its 'anything goes' ethos, and its celebration of bad taste, opened the door to low-tech media and styles.

The German artist Anselm Kiefer, inspired by the biomorphic water-colour drawings of his teacher Joseph Beuys, started using the medium in 1969. In a book entitled 'Heroic Symbols', he juxtaposed photographs of himself doing the Nazi salute with deliberately nave water-colours of the same subject. Kiefer's intention was to confront the 'repressed' Nazi past: 'I have to re-enact just a little bit in order to understand the madness.' The use of water- colour in this context was very loaded. Like his subject matter it was a medium that had been largely 'repressed' by post-war art.

The perceived lack of sophistication and scale of water-colour was to attract many artists in the Seventies and Eighties. It was primitive, risque, raw. It had an intimacy, and a poignant fragility. As such, it has been used by German Neo-Expressionist painters such as Baselitz, Immendorf, Penck, and Richter. The Italian Neo-Expressionist Francesco Clemente has used it for steamy self-portraits and Jungian abstractions.

One of the attractions of water-colour for the English semi-abstract artist Therese Oulton is its underdog status. She makes water-colours wherever she goes: 'I carry the water-colour box with me like a Victorian lady. It's supposed to be a lady's medium, a second-class citizen. I rather like that'. Richard Hamilton, that resolute purveyor of 'bad' taste, only occasionally makes water- colours, but he admits that his thin, transparent style of painting (as in the 'Flower- Pieces' and 'Soft Landscapes') mimics the medium: 'I do tend to use oil paint in a watery kind of way. My paintings are really like giant water-colours' Richard Long is an interesting case. His mud drawings are essentially topographical water-colours. In order to make them, Long extracts mud from a local site, such as the River Avon, and uses the mud to make abstract patterns on paper. These monochrome daubs of dried mud are blots from the landscape . . .