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Watercolours from the Stadel Museum Collection on View in Germany
Ernst Wilhelm Nay (1902-1968), Lofoten Landscape with Lake and a Barge, 1938. Watercolor over pencil on handmade laid paper, 59 x 208mm. Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main. Photo: Peter McClennan.

FRANKFURT.- The fascination of watercolour is unique. Like no other technique, it is able to express the luminosity, purity, and transparency of colours. Its painterly qualities are marked by lightness, freshness, and spontaneity. The exhibition “Watercolours from the Städel Museum Collection Department of Prints and Drawings” encourages spectators to explore the great diversity of this ambitious technique by means of outstanding examples from the collection’s own holdings, up to the recent present. Vedute, landscapes viewed from close up or at a distance, such atmospheric impressions as cloud studies, still lifes, as well as seemingly surreal pictorial inventions by Jean-Jacques de Boissieu, Carl Philipp Fohr, Carl Rottmann, Carl Morgenstern, Rudolf von Alt, Louis Eysen, Paul Cézanne, Lovis Corinth, Emil Nolde, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Georg Baselitz, Claes Oldenburg, and many other prominent artists attest to a virtuoso handling of the brush in combination with water-soluble, glazing paint.

The term “watercolour” already suggests that the finely ground pigments of the paint, mixed with a binder such as gum arabic, are dissolved in water as an essential element of the painting process. With hairbrushes ranging from pointed to broad and absorbing or giving off different quantities of paint, the transparent colours are applied to the paper, either generously or in delicate lines or dots. The translucency of the colours accounts for the medium’s charm. Watercolour paint lets the paper support shine through and unlike bodycolour allows the colour to be suffused with light, so that the spectator is confronted with images of almost immaterial quality. Only the watercolour technique has the capacity for combining the precision of drawing with the spatial illusionism of painting. It can serve to describe things realistically, as well as express a painterly rhythm. Above all, it requires imagination and a supreme command of the medium in order to be able to build a motif from the luminosity of the paper by proceeding from the lightest to the darkest shades. The surface texture of the paper is decisive as well. Most of the demands made on watercolour painting are met by absorbent paper that dries relatively fast without warping, so that the glazing layers of paint can be swiftly applied on top of each other.

Looking at watercolours, one can differentiate between various methods that can also be combined. The transparent paint is applied to the dry paper with a wet brush. After it has dried, a translucent layer of the same or a different colour can be added, resulting in either a shadow effect (Odilon Redon) or a third hue. The composition is thus built by advancing from the lighter to the darker sections (Ernst Fries). Tones that have previously been mixed in water can be applied as well. If the artist works wet on wet, a brush dipped into clear water is used to graduate paint that is still wet. This watercolour wash technique is distinguished from another method of wet-on-wet painting where different colours are caused to blend on the paper in order to achieve new shades (Emil Nolde).

Quite frequently, watercolour is combined with other painting and drawing techniques, such as opaque gouache painting (Louis-Gabriel Moreau). In many watercolours one can recognize outlines or a preliminary sketch of the composition in graphite (Johann Heinrich Müntz), chalk (Claes Oldenburg), or pen and ink (Karl Philipp Fohr). Examples by Johann Wilhelm Schirmer, who scratches out delicate lines from the paint layer, or Jakob Nussbaum, who mixes the darkest watercolour tone with grains of sand, give us an idea of atypical uses of watercolour. The development of contemporary art in the twentieth century has also brought about media crossovers (Karl Bohrmann, Arnulf Rainer).

In order to illustrate the multifaceted spectrum of watercolour painting, the exhibition offers a survey that has been exclusively compiled from the Städel Museum’s own holdings. The selected works cover the period from the fifteenth to the twenty-first century; conceived thus as a synopsis of the medium in question, the display allows for an instructive and entertaining exploration of the fascinating world of watercolour.

Starting in the early fifteenth century, the transparent quality of watercolour paint was used to colour prints or linear drawings (Albrecht Dürer). Aiming to generate illusionistic effects, artists have designed stained glass windows, ceiling paintings (Jacob de Wit, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo) and stage settings (Giorgio Fuentes), a church (Leo von Klenze), or even a complete town (Friedrich Maximilian Hessemer).

For centuries, watercolours have served to produce naturalistic renderings of the realm of plants, such as the botanical study by Maria Sibylla Merian, the still life by the Dutchman Wybrand Hendriks, or the green leafy branch by the Frenchman Odilon Redon. The native fauna is reflected in the fish by an unidentified master of the late 16th century or in the Crab by the Dutch painter Jan van Huysum.

In the late eighteenth century, artists developed a growing interest in studying nature on the spot, in order to discover landscape motifs worth depicting. For instance, Christoph Heinrich Kniep viewed Capri from the Bay of Naples; in Hesse, Friedrich Christian Reinermann captured the ruin of Kalsmunt near Wetzlar; Christian Georg Schütz rendered the village of Reifenberg from the Feldberg, an elevation in the Taunus mountain range. All three of them assigned to their large-format watercolours the status of oil paintings, whereas the Frankfurt-based painter Carl Morgenstern, at the age of 17, made a small, “private” panorama of the river Main.

The watercolours by German Romanticists in the Städel Museum’s collection are dominated by Italianate landscape impressions. The promising talent of Karl Philipp Fohr, who died prematurely, is illustrated by a finely nuanced cloud study from his sketchbook and a Tyrolean landscape. Watercolours by Hippolyte Flandrin and Muirhead Bone attest to the medium’s suitability for capturing the atmosphere of a certain time of the day. The town of Siena inspired Max Klinger to do watercolour studies for the background of his monumental painting The Crucifixion of Christ.

The French painter Paul Cézanne’s Chestnut Trees at the Jas de Bouffan numbers among the highlights of the Frankfurt collection. In this watercolour, the artist succeeded in lending his rigid composition both a classical and a modern touch. The friends Henri-Edmond Cross and Paul Signac shared a Neo-Impressionist approach, and both of them drew their inspirations from the bright light of the Mediterranean coast. August Macke chose complementary colour contrasts for his work Hilterfingen am Thunersee.

The late self-portrait of Lovis Corinth conveys the impression of swiftness and effervescence, as if the artist had been wrestling with the medium. The liberation of colour – its separation from form and preliminary outlines – is demonstrated by both figural motifs and landscapes in watercolours by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Emil Nolde. In Wildboden and the late work Dancing Couple, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner sought to achieve a synthesis between the two-dimensional effects of the applied watercolour paint and the compositional framework of his drawing.

Among the watercolours of German post-war art, the abstract Composition by Karl Otto Götz, laid out in expressive, broad bands of colour, conquers the blank picture space. Hann Trier likewise understood how to make use of the luminous quality of the medium in his abstract, constructive configurations. In the context of our selection, Ernst Wilhelm Nay’s early work, a powerfully impressive Lofoten landscape, anticipates the art of A.R. Penck, whereas Nay’s late Mykonos watercolour seems to lead up to Georg Baselitz. Claes Oldenburg ignores both the function and relative dimensions of everyday objects, spreading them within the surreal picture space with irritating matter-of-factness. For his watercolour, he chose a piece of crispbread, which he playfully turned into a sports field. Sam Francis succeeded in underscoring the quality of watercolour painting by negation; in the course of a rather contemplative observation of the picture, the spectator’s eye is sensitized to the rich nuances achieved by the skillful handling of water, colour, and light.

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