Curator’s Talk at the British Museum – Beyond the Great Wave

I was fortunate in being able to book a ticket for the Curator’s Introduction on the day that The Great Wave exhibition opened at the British Museum. The curator of the exhibition, Timothy Clark opened by describing Hokusai’s fundamental belief that the older he gets the greater the artist he will become. This was a very encouraging statement, not least because it seemed to be true, Hokusai’s later works are seen by many as his best.

The exhibition had been designed in six themes

  • Hokusai from twenty to sixty
  • Mt Fuji and The Great Wave
  • Worlds Seen
  • Worlds Imagined
  • Hokusai’s World
  • Immortality (the last three years

From the early work Fast Skiffs Navigating Large Waves, a woodblock from 1804-1807, was a forerunner of The Great Wave. Clark described how the works were very influenced by European ideas, a low horizon, chiarascuro and the framing all followed the European norm. He believed that this could have been brought about by a commission that Hokusai received from Dutch visitors to paint scenes of everyday life.

Clark also commented on The Great Wave which he described as emblematic for the power of the sea and the power of nature as a whole. The foam of the wave forms tentacles and the whole scene seems to be one of suspended animation – the moment before the wave is about to drop.

Under the Wave off Kanagawa, colour woodblock, by Katsushika Hokusai
© Trustees of the British Museum. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)


Talk at the British Museum – Redefining the golden age of watercolour landscape painting

This talk was about landscape watercolours from the 1880s to the early 20th century and broadly talked about the shifting aesthetics within this period. It started with comments on the Victorian aesthetic, very detailed highly tech finished technique. A typical Victorian watercolour landscape would be similar to this by Helen Allingham, Cowdray cottage.

This is a classic piece showing a period cottage with “Gertrude Jekyll” type of wild garden. Hollyhocks are portrayed in the garden with winsome female figures standing at the entrance to the garden.


Artists at this time wanted to preserve nature and the vernacular buildings. But it is a very idealised image, it doesn’t represent the troubled times that existed then in rural areas. The female figures portrayed are thin and winsome despite carrying out heavy manual tasks such as carrying water. But this is what Victorian audiences wanted to see.


As a reaction to this a period of aestheticism followed, epitomised by the works of James McNeill Whistler. He introduced a preference for form over narrative, art for arts sake. Linked to this was Japonisme, the interest in Japanese art in the 1860s and then a little later the influence of French Impressionism.


Three Whistler images were used as examples of this radical shift.

Nocturne from the 1880s.

Whistler was very careful about the titles he gave to his works. This image was extremely radical for the times and genuinely shocked people. It is all about suggestion e.g. the marks on the bottom left corner suggesting figures.


Some of his works were very small (5 x 8”) which was also radical. For example

The Thames at Battersea c1876-78

Whistler used a much more tonal colour palette and embodied the influence of Japanese art.

Whistler’s precise use of title was illustrated in

Blue and brown – Westgate – the Moors, c1886

The title emphasises reform over narrative, the artist wants you to see first of all the colours of the image. Again there is a suggestion of figures on the horizon.


The frame for this work was very contemporary and Whistler was very insistent on the frame and other aspects when his paintings were exhibited – lighting, wall colour and spareness.


We then looked at the work of Hercules Brabazon Brabazon and and his depictions of Venice.


This is very much in the tradition of Whistler and the French Impressionists. This also contains the idea of suggestion and a mixture of loose handled washes and dabs of paint. In John Singer Sargent’s Torrent in the Val D’Aosta c1907.


One can very much see the influence of French Impressionism. It is an extremely gestural piece. You do not see a wider narrative come, compositionally it is very cut off – it forces the eye on to the gesture, the paint and the brushwork.


But by the 1920s there was a reaction against Impressionism and against the breaking up of the surface in painting.


Some artists created a sparser watercolour for example Eric Ravilious in 1923 Wannock Dew Pond.

This demonstrates a painted painterly reaction against Impressionism. It demonstrates that Ravilious was looking back to the work of  John Sell Cotman

And Francis Towne

And being inspired by them bringing a much sparser feel to his watercolours.

It was a fascinating talk to attend and made me think much more deeply about what is a landscape and how is it portrayed:

  • It can be a simple representation
  • It can be idealised, what you want it to look like rather than what it really is
  • it can just be suggested

And what is more important – a recognisable feature or just the colours as in Whistler’s paintings above?

OCA Study Visit – Deutsche Borse Prize

I joined the other OCA students at the Photographers gallery for this visit to see the works of the 4 shortlisted artists for the 2017 Prize. What was particularly interesting about this study visit was the opportunity for each student to put forward their work for the views of others. I learned a lot from seeing the work brought along and then giving my views on it and hearing what other students had to say. As I had only started the landscape course 5 days earlier, I didn’t have any images to take with me to submit for comment, but I did outline my thoughts for the ‘Transitions’ project and received encouraging feedback for it.

The four artists shortlisted for the 2017 Prize were Sophie Calle, Dana Lixenberg, Awoiska van der Molen, and Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs.

For this post I will concentrate on the work of Awoiska van der Molen as her work was concerned with landscape. According to the gallery leaflet van der Molen “explores ideas of place allowing them to impress upon her specific emotional and physical qualities”. She spends extended periods in isolation in remote locations, allowing the landscape to impress upon her rather than imposing any pre-determined views on the landscape.

The results were some stunning black and white, silver gelatin prints. The images seem to draw you in, embrace you with the landscape as you view them, you could almost be on a ‘viewing platform’ as you look at them. Except that you aren’t, you can’t be as they are images of solitude mainly with (apart from one exception) no signs of human presence or intervention.

Displayed as large scale prints in the gallery, they are very powerful representations of the surrounding environment whether of forest or rock faces, allowing the force of the environment to impose itself on the viewer.

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