LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Often dismissed as pretty landscapes by amateur artists, a new exhibition casts a fresh perspective on watercolor, tracing its versatility as a medium for war artists, draughtsman and intrepid seafarers.
"Watercolor" at the Tate Britain examines 800 years of the medium's history, with more than 200 works from notable masters such as JMW Turner and Thomas Girtin to contemporary artists like Tracey Emin and Anish Kapoor.
But the exhibition also displays works of lesser-known specialists employed on sea voyages of discovery in the 17th and 18th century to produce intricate drawings of exotic fauna and flora.
"These works were considered to be a branch of knowledge and scientific enquiry rather than an art form in its own right," said Alison Smith, the exhibition's curator.
Denied the status of artists working in other mediums, such as oil, practitioners were often considered jobbing artists and found themselves working in arduous conditions.
Sydney Parkinson, who traveled on Captain Cook's voyages of discovery, died at sea from dysentery, while Edward Bawden endured temperatures of 112 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade when painting on location in Egypt.
Cheap, clean and portable, some of the earliest practitioners of watercolor were military craftsman sent to document overseas battles. The fluidity of the medium allowed artists to go beyond representation and offer a subjective interpretation.
Bowels protruding onto the stomach of a wounded soldier and an Eric Taylor painting of piles of human bodies at Belsen concentration camp are some of the stark scenes on display in the section "Watercolor and War" -- one of eight themed rooms in the exhibition.
One of the most striking works is Edward Burra's "Soldiers at Rye" (1941) that depicts the horrors of war through a carnivalesque scene of bulbous figures in pointy masks.
A sufferer of rheumatoid arthritis, Burra had limited use of his hands and turned to watercolor to continue painting when he could no longer work in oil.
The show also charts the medium's progression from the folio and the book into the public space. In the final room Karla Black's cavernous cellophane sculpture, "Opportunity for Girls" (2006), moves watercolor off the wall and into the open space.
Described as a "hanging bra" by one spectator, Black uses watercolor mixed with hair gel, toothpaste, nail varnish and Vaseline, to highlight the medium's fluidity and feminine origins.
Traditionally considered a light and delicate medium, women were encouraged to practice watercolor, as it honed techniques of precision and skill and instilled moral values. However it remains popular among contemporary artists.
"If you scratch the surface there are a surprising number of cutting edge artists, who are using it," Smith said.
"Maybe because it's the opposite of the very sophisticated technology...it's so immediate and direct and is ideal for working through ideas."
"Watercolor" is on show at the Tate Britain from February 16 to August 21 2011.
Editing by Paul Casciato