Barrington Watson in Context – Part II

Barrington Watson - Self Portrait (1962) Collection: NGJ

Barrington Watson – Self Portrait (1962) Collection: NGJ

The Jamaican Master Painter Barrington Watson passed away last month. Here is part 2 of the two-part post based on Veerle Poupeye’s essay for the 2012 Barrington Watson retrospective catalogue – Part 1 can be found here. This essay places Barrington Watson in the context of post-Independence art.

3. A Jamaican Master

Barrington Watson holds a special place among the Independence generation. As an academic realist, Watson’s work is more accessible than that of his CJAA contemporaries, which certainly contributes to his local popularity. His subject matter, furthermore, generally conforms to the norms set by the nationalist school and includes genre and history scenes and landscapes. Watson is also a sought-after portraitist, who has produced many official portraits, among others of Jamaica’s Prime Ministers. He is also known for his nudes and erotica, the latter of which was new and quite provocative in mainstream Jamaican art of the 1970s. The substantive difference between Watson and his nationalist predecessors was, however, that he represented his subjects in the “grand manner” of Western academism, with sweeping, theatrical compositions on large canvases, classically posed figures, and virtuoso drawing and brushwork. Watson’s popular appeal and assertions of high academic artistic status may, at first glance, seem like a contradiction but a closer look reveals otherwise.

Barrington Watson has not only been recognized as a Jamaican “Great Master” but has actively asserted himself as such. His illustrated book of short stories, Shades of Grey (1998) contains the story of a dream in which he encounters the 19th century European great masters Manet, Degas, Monet, Cezanne and Renoir, who assure him that they have been watching his progress and regard him as one of them.[1] This may contradict the dominant view that postcolonial art derives its legitimacy from positioning itself against the “Great Western Tradition” but Watson counterbalances this in another short story, also based on a dream, in which he encounters the king of Ancient Benin who reveals that he is of royal blood and invites him to produce a bronze lion for his throne.[2] By means of these two imaginary endorsements, Watson thus claims his dual legitimacy in the “Great Traditions” of Europe and Africa. This dual allegiance is also evident in his artistic motto: “The light of Turner; The line of Ingres; The range of Rembrandt; The techniques of Velasquez; The emotion of Goya; and, my birthright of Benin.” He therefore does not question the construct of “high art” but assertively claims his place in its hierarchies, and in doing so asserts himself as a black “Great Master.”

Style: "Neutral"

Barrington Watson – Conversation (1981), Collection: NGJ

Not surprisingly, Barrington Watson has been one of the main critics of the National Gallery of Jamaica’s promotion of Intuitive art. This came to a head while the exhibition Jamaican Art 1922-1982, which was curated by the National Gallery Director/Curator David Boxer and its former Deputy Director Vera Hyatt, toured in North America through the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) from 1983 to 1985.[3] The exhibition was positively received in North America, where it attracted approximately 117,000 visitors, but several critics expressed reservations about what they saw as the Eurocentricity of the mainstream.[4] John Bentley Mays of the Globe and Mail of Toronto, for instance, wrote: “The most intriguing paintings and sculptures here, however, are not the polished Euro-Jamaican descendents of [Edna Manley’s] the Beadseller, but the home-spun, punchy pictures of the self-taught Intuitives” (11).[5] Predictably, this did not sit well with some of the mainstream artists, Barrington Watson chief among them.

Watson’s views on the matter were mainly expressed in public speeches but he was supported in writing by the Gleaner’s Andrew Hope, who held similar views. Hope accused the National Gallery of having designed the exhibition “with the objective of demonstrating that our Primitives are superior to those painters and sculptors who have received formal training and were ‘contaminated’ by European influences”.[6] In all fairness to the Gallery, the Intuitives were not actually more prominently represented than the mainstream artists, certainly not numerically: the exhibition, which actually included Barrington Watson’s work, consisted of 76 works of which 27, or 36 %, could be classified as Intuitive.[7] It was however clear that the Intuitives more closely conformed to North American expectations about Jamaican art, as was evident in the critical response.

Barrington Watson’s insistence on the high art status of his work and his own status as a Jamaican Master can indeed be construed as a rejection of the Primitivist assumptions that have been externally imposed on Jamaican art. He reiterated this point in his October 13, 2011 lecture at the National Gallery and argued that that “Intuitive” was a euphemism for “Primitive.” As this author has argued elsewhere, the Intuitive art construct is indeed fraught with a major internal contradiction: on the one hand it elevates the Intuitives to a central position in the Jamaican art canons, a position which many of the artists so designated certainly deserve, but on the other hand it unwittingly perpetuates many of the characteristics of the Primitive art construct, especially the dependency on exclusive patronage and connoisseurship and the assumption that such art possesses greater cultural and artistic purity and authenticity.[8]

Barrington Watson - Out of Many, One People (1962), drawing

Barrington Watson – Out of Many, One People (1962), drawing

The uneasiness with the mainstream Western assumptions about what is legitimate and authentic in Jamaican art is not unique to Barrington Watson. Nor is it, for that matter, unique to the Jamaican situation: in Haiti, a group of artists who were disgruntled with the Centre d’Art’s international promotion of the Haitian Primitives in 1950 established the dissident Foyer des Arts Plastiques. They challenged the Primitivist typecasting of Haitian art and artists and instead articulated a modernist conception of Haitian art, albeit with less international acclaim.[9] In fact, the desire for high cultural status, on par with the “Great Western Tradition” – a status with had been denied by the cultural dynamics of colonialism and Western imperialism – has been a crucial, if inherently conflicted and contradictory part of the cultural dynamics of postcolonial Caribbean art – contradictory because it perpetuates the dominance of the Western art canons and hierarchies in the process. There is thus no contradiction between Barrington Watson’s popular appeal and assertions of high cultural status and the two are in actuality complementary: Jamaicans identify with his work precisely because it is identifiably “Jamaican” and classicizes its subjects in a way that transcends the stigmas of Primivitism. In this regard, Barrington Watson may well be the defining Jamaican artist of the post-Independence period.

This essay is adapted from sections of Veerle Poupeye’s doctoral dissertation Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in 20th Century Jamaica (Emory University, 2011) – all rights reserved by the author.



[1] Watson, Barrington and Elaine Melbourne. Shades of Grey. Kingston: Ian Randle, 1998, 90-99.

[2] Ibid., 50-58.

[3] Vera Hyatt had in 1980 left the National Gallery of Jamaica to take up a job with SITES as Registrar.

[4] Excerpts from the reviews were compiled and published by the NGJ in the brochure Jamaican Art 1922-1982 Returns. Kingston: National Gallery of Jamaica, 1986.

[5] Ibid., 11.

[6] Hope, Andrew. “Gallery Guide.” Gleaner, March 31, 1986, 16. The exhibition was in 1986 shown at the National Gallery of Jamaica after the completion of its overseas tour and the cited comment was published at that time.

[7] Smith-McCrea, Rosalie. Jamaican Art 1922-1982 Returns. Kingston: National Gallery of Jamaica, 1986, 2.

[8] Poupeye, Veerle. “Intuitive Art as a Canon.” Small Axe, no. 24 (2007): 73-82.

[9] Poupeye, Veerle. Caribbean Art, World of Art. London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998, 66-67.


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