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. 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. 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.”
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. 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. 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). Predictably, this did not sit well with some of the mainstream artists, Barrington Watson chief among them.