garden & cosmos 13-07-2009

a small but wonderful exhibition at the british museum. breathtaking colours you don't see in western art until... well, i'm having trouble thinking of anything before the sixties. turner, singer sargent, gaugin... even in their most acid-trip moments they all seem a bit muted next to these pinks and greens. plus, these are all folio pictures, which were stored in large volumes away from sunlight so they look as if they were painted yesterday. 

the figures, animals and buildings are painted without perspective. you don't realise how this makes the surface come alive until a couple of the later painters borrow two-point perspective from european models and something dies a little (two-point perspective fixes you in one place in front of the scene; without perspective you have to think of yourself moving constantly, looking at this elephant from the side, looking at that building from above).

the way they painted moving water is fascinating too. rain and rivers are depicted using a swirly graphical shorthand that we all still use and understand. but splashes were done with dabs of watercolour which look to me at least, like flower petals which have fallen onto the paper. it made me think of hockney's 'a bigger splash' (which is about precisely this). there is no 'realistic' way of painting a splash. a splash is all about movement. freeze it and the splashiness is gone. so you need a graphical shorthand. but the viewer needs to know that shorthand too...

garden & cosmos