Arts: The decline and fall of the watercolour

Watercolours have traditionally been viewed as the poor relation to sculpture and oils. The launch of a new competition hopes to change all that.
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WATERCOLOUR PAINTING has a serious image problem. Or, in the words of David Lee, editor of the monthly Art Review, "the public's perception of the watercolourist is of someone who is old and not young," - some dabbling, tweedy amateur perhaps, of traditionalist, topographical inclinations, out, en plein air, on a Bank Holiday Sunday. So different from that serious, studio-bound, cutting-edge professional, with his cold fingers wrapped around some stained coffee mug.

The Royal Watercolour Society, founded in 1804, is trying to change all that. It has just announced Watercolour C21, a new open painting competition intended to challenge artists, especially younger artists, to develop watercolour as a dynamic medium for the 21st century.

If there is an image problem, who is to blame for it? Dealers in Old Masters, in part - such as Agnew of Old Bond Street. What do you find, for example, inside the lavish catalogue for this spring's 126th annual exhibition of English Watercolours and Drawings?

No surprises from the 20th century is the answer. There was, for example, Paul Sandby's (1725-1809) Old Grey Mare Tethered to a Tree, a Boy resting on the Ground nearby; skip a few pages and you would have come across David Cox's (1783-1859) Laugharne Castle, South Wales, at Low Tide, a Full Moon Rising. These two sum up the popular idea of watercolour: romantically heightened paintings of rural scenes, conservative in subject matter, brilliantly realistic in execution.

Among professional painters, watercolours come low in the hierarchy. The whole idea makes them feel a bit queasy, too easily shared with some of the 2.5 million amateur painters in this country who may have learnt at least some of their skills from a book. "Better known artists don't submit watercolours to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition," says Catherine Lampert, director of London's Whitechapel Gallery who is on the selection panel. Artists do paint in watercolour, she tells me, but regard it as a more intimate act, for private consumption, sketches towards the thing rather than the thing itself.

This attitude, once again, is grounded in historical precedent. In the 18th and 19th centuries, watercolours were a rapid means of recording passing scenes. It was a portable, fluid, convenient medium, a kind of note-making in images, a skill that would have been part of any workman's tool kit, more craft than art form.

Thomas Girtin's brilliant series of paintings called A Panorama of London, and the genius of his travelling companion JMW Turner helped to change all that. These two great revolutionaries caused watercolour to become something utterly other than what it had so often been - coloured-in drawings. It became a discipline fit for serious artists to wrestle with.

Another reason for suspicion of watercolour concerns its scale. Historically, watercolours have generally been small in size. Young artists like to work big in order to make an impact upon the world. Careers are made quickly or not at all.

But have the virtues of watercolour really been neglected by the moderns? Not as much as one might think. Take Cezanne for example. His watercolours are in no sense provisional sketches or preparatory studies for later works in oil. They exhibit a swiftness, a delicacy of touch, a spontaneity, and some miraculous quality of abstraction which are quite unlike what he achieved elsewhere.

If anything, they make even his greatest oils seem somewhat heavy-handed by comparison. Or Paul Klee. His fantastic watercolour landscapes of imagined childhoods are like nothing else - immaterial in the way they dance before the eyes.

If anything, the work of Cezanne and Klee in watercolour demonstrates just how strong, fluid and subtle the medium can be when compared with oils or acrylics, and how much it is able to convey of the qualities of light.

And then there is a younger generation still - Glenys Johnson, for example, whose huge watercolours were recently on display in an exhibition called India Monochrome at the Purdy Hicks Gallery; fragile, fluid images on huge sheets of soft, crinkly paper, with a presence as scary as the Turin Shroud; Anish Kapoor, who showed an excellent suite of watercolours at his recent Hayward Gallery retrospective, and who has spoken of its wonderful speed and immediacy compared with the much longer labours of sculpture.

Or Andy Goldsworthy, whose recent "organic watercolours" have been created from blackberry juice and melted snow.

And is there some watercolourist on the very cutting edge of acceptability as far as subject matter is concerned?

Yes indeed, and to sample her work you need to go down to the Frith Street Gallery in Soho.

Here you can see the latest oils and works on paper by the South-African- born artist Marlene Dumas. These are images from the Amsterdam red light district. Among these disquieting images of sexual degradation, all these lonely vulvas and even lonelier anuses, there appears one nude who is less sexually demonstrative, and much more compelling in the ghostly blueness of her absent presence than the rest.

It's called Bonnard's Wife and seems to have been executed at some speed - unlike the oils upstairs which appear, by comparison, to have been laboured over.

And this exquisite work on paper, so full of tenderness and sensitivity, knocks all the tawdry oils upstairs into a cocked hat.

I ask the girl at the desk about an image. "It's the least rude one of all," she says. I explain about family newspapers. "We had some people from the American museums round here," she tells me. "They took one look and said: Oh, my God!"

For information about Watercolour C21 contact Bankside Gallery, 48 Hopton Street, London SE1 9JH. The closing date is 11 June 1999