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2. History

Source: Oxford University Press

(iii) 20th century

Even if the century from 1750 to 1850 was perhaps the great age of the ‘amateur’ watercolourist, instructed by an army of drawing masters and manuals, the medium has retained its broad appeal in the 20th century and indeed has never been more popular. Unfortunately, the sheer abundance of stylistic examples from the past has tended to depress the imaginative zeal of many later practitioners, and a sense of déja vu is likely to be communicated by many mainstream exhibitions. While many of the fundamental concerns of modernism—with space, form or pattern, with the flatness of the pictorial plane, with the inner life of the medium or with spontaneity and immediacy of impression and effect—may be found anticipated in the watercolours of the Romantics, the medium is less often today the vehicle for searching advances in imagery or style.

Watercolour has nonetheless continued to find fresh interpreters in the 20th century. Moreau’s studies had already suggested its abstract possibilities, while the sensual works of Rodin and Klimt opened up other avenues. Vestiges of its topographical function survived, for instance in Fauvism, and for such artists as Raoul Dufy the medium’s immediacy and intensity were paramount. In Germany the painters associated with the Blaue Reiter used this saturation differently. While Kandinsky made large numbers of abstract watercolours in preparation for his oils, Klee was one of the few modernists whose work was dominated by the medium, using its strong colour and intimate scale to capture a quixotic personal vision (see colour pl. VIII).

For artists emerging after World War I, watercolour took on different possibilities. It served utopian ends in the sketches of many abstract artists (e.g. El Lissitzky, Johannes Itten and Theo van Doesberg), but had a different function in the satirical works of George Grosz, Jules Pascin and others. In England the tradition for topographical watercolour was renewed in the visionary landscapes of Paul Nash, John Piper, David Jones and others; while Henry Moore developed an original combination of wax, ink and watercolour in his wartime Shelter drawings. Having been forbidden to paint by the Nazis, Emil Nolde produced secret watercolours (preferred to oil, which could be smelt) that have a strong emotional and chromatic dependence on his native landscape. By contrast, Wols, a late associate of Surrealism, produced minute gestural abstractions, the jewel-like intensity of which was comparable to works by Klee, whom he admired. Watercolour was taken up both by Pop artists R. B. Kitaj, David Hockney and others, and by those in the 1970s who looked back to the Abstract Expressionists, such as Brice Marden and Sean Scully. The subsequent return of neo-Expressionistic figuration also favoured the fluency of watercolour, and its use by Francesco Clemente unites it with still potent non-Western (especially Indian) traditions of watercolour painting.

David Blayney Brown
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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