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The Shape of Water

14 May 2018 by Ann Bukantas

Water presents artists with a restless, ever-changing technical challenge. As representations of H2O go, there are some undisputed masterpieces in the Walker Art Gallery’s collection, including Monet’s Breaking up of the ice on the Seine, near Bennecourt, Courbet’s Low Tide at Trouville and Sickert’s The Bathers, Dieppe. Water even provides the backdrop to Fournier’s sombre ‘The Funeral of Shelley’, which is set on a beach – all very fitting, given that the poet drowned at sea in 1822.

Fournier’s ‘The Funeral of Shelley’

With the wet stuff in mind, there is a surprising amount of water too in the Walker’s current display of John Moores Painting Prize first prize winners, which we are celebrating as part of the 60th anniversary of the Prize.

David Hockney’s Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool, which will go back on display in July, is the product of the artist’s obsession with the depiction of water and reflections – Hockney regarded this as one of the ultimate artistic challenges. The painting reflects the impact of Hockney’s move in 1964 to California, with its sunny climate, relaxed lifestyle and vibrant colours. The pool, in Hollywood, belonged to Los Angeles gallery owner Nicholas Wilder. To show the reflection of light on the window and in the water Hockney followed the conventions of comics and advertisements, using parallel or rope-like wriggly lines over strong, flat colours. The painting won for Hockney the first prize in the 1967 exhibition.

One of the jurors for the 2018 Prize, Bruce McLean, won in 1985 with Oriental Garden, Kyoto, one of a group of large paintings made by the Glasgow-born sculptor after a trip to Japan in 1982. Dominating this vast canvas is McLean’s performative, rapidly painted splash, which drips towards the picture’s bottom edge.

Detail from Bruce McLean’s Oriental Garden, Kyoto

McLean evokes, but does not seek to replicate, the water. The quirky red and white shapes are carp. This is, he said, “a painting of a Japanese ornamental garden, painted almost the same size as an actual garden. A celebration of big fish in small ponds.”

The figurative painter Andrzej Jackowski won first prize in 1991. The title of his poetic, allegorical work, The Beekeeper’s Son, is adapted from Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘The Beekeeper’s Daughter’.

The main inspiration for the artist was the birth of his son. He visualised the child as grown-up and bursting upon life, so Jackowski’s water holds a symbolic reference to birth and growth. His son’s figure floats or flies above a lake, river and trees. It is painted in a primitive way to convey naivety and innocence.

Detail from Andrzej Jackowski’s The Beekeeper’s Son

The shore of the lake is littered with objects. There is a reindeer, a snooker table and a suitcase containing a bird and a boat. Like the water, these are mysterious motifs of the young man’s journey into the world.

Peter Doig, in his 1993 first prize winner Blotter, has manipulated the changing properties of water to serve his artistic vision. The painting is based on a photograph of the artist’s brother standing on a frozen pond in Canada, where Doig was brought up.

Detail from Peter Doig’s ‘Blotter’

He pumped water over the ice to enhance the reflections, which, like Monet, he represents in a myriad of colours, and with numerous painterly ‘squiggles’. The title, ‘Blotter’, refers to how a person can become absorbed in a place or landscape – the figure looks down into his reflection to suggest inward thought. The word also refers to the paint soaking into the canvas, whilst in Canada ‘blotter’ can mean the carrier – blotting-paper – used to soak up and share drugs like LSD.

Water is at the centre of Sarah Pickstone’s Stevie Smith and the Willow, which won the Prize in 2012. The artist’s interest in parks also inspired this painting. She researched London’s Regent’s Park and the women writers and artists linked with it, including the poet Stevie Smith. Smith accompanied her 1957 poem ‘Not Waving But Drowning’ with a child-like drawing of a girl waist-deep in water. Pickstone incorporates this image, together with a favourite willow tree. She says the painting signifies “part tree, part self, part story, part rebirth.”

Detail from Sarah Pickstone’s Stevie Smith and the Willow

Colourful scribbles of paint suggest the ripples in front of the figure while fluid greys convey the reflections of the branches. To the right of the scene, a duck, almost calligraphic in style, floats by in order to highlight the water’s surface amidst the sparse white background.

Martin Greenland is inspired by the Cumbrian landscape, therefore water is an ever-present force in his surroundings. The element cascades through his painting Before Vermeer’s Clouds, which was the first prize winner in 2006 and is currently on display in room 6, amidst our Liverpool Pre-Raphaelite landscapes.

This is a fictional landscape in which the sky is copied from Vermeer’s famous 17th-century work, ‘A View of Delft’. Like Doig, Greenland experiments with the different states of water. The right hand side of the picture space is snow-bound, representing winter. The stream trickles down beneath, with the thaw running into the central distance – the spring season of the scene.

Detail from Martin Greenland’s Before Vermeer’s Clouds

Of water, Martin tells us, “Its animation adds spirit to the collage of the landscape of rock, wood, pasture and unimproved fellside. Its symbolic significance in a painted landscape should be obvious; constancy and transience, the giver of life and in a lake, tarn, pool or puddle, there is its reflective quality. These are all things I tend to think about after I have painted. When actually painting I tend to just enjoy the pure aesthetic of (flowing) water and like challenging myself to see if I can paint water convincingly. I think that there are only two ways to paint water. One is to observe, directly from life, and the other is to paint it from memory, from acquired knowledge – and that knowledge having been gained by looking, by attempting to understand, by filling one’s mind with understanding about how water behaves. For myself, painting water, or indeed anything, from photographs, is just not on.”

 

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