On the European Confederation of Watercolour Societies
It had struck me as a mysterious fact that there exist in various countries societies dedicated exclusively to the art of painting in watercolours, whereas similar associations for other artistic disciplines are very seldom. One of these, and a very active one indeed, was the Belgian Watercolour Society of which I was a member. The core of this institution was a group of artists located in the remote little village of Mol. In that area had been established also a number of scientific research centres, such as “Euratom”. There an international amalgam of scientists and other professionals created a spirit of universality and probably that made the idea of a link between watercolour societies in different countries ferment in a small circle of my friends painters. Some of us had experience with international (scientific) institutions and started thinking of a similar structure for the watercolourists’ community. As a result the “European Confederation of Watercolour Societies” (acronym: ECWS) was founded, March 14th 1998, on the occasion of the inauguration of the annual watercolour exhibition in Mol. Two societies were involved in the initiative : the Belgian “Aquarelinstituut van België”, which had launched the idea and the Italian “Associazione Italiana Acquerellisti”, which had seconded it enthusiastically. The statutes were solemnly signed by the presidents Swa Claes and Angelo Gorlini, during a ceremony in a spacious gallery looking out over the lake and in the presence of an odd hundred witnesses, artists and art lovers.
Nordiska Akvarellsällskapet joins the ECWS
After we had founded the European Confederation, I became aware of the existence of “Nordiska Akvarellsällskapet” and immediately started up a correspondence with Björn Ericsson, then president, to invite the Nordic artists to partake in the enterprise of establishing a network between the major European watercolour societies. From the start Björn showed a great enthusiasm. He was able to convince the board and in February 2000 he signed the convention thereby joining the NAS as the third member association to the ECWS. The following year I met him personally in Antwerp on the occasion of the Watercolour Festival and I could appreciate him as a fervent protagonist of international cooperation.
Now the action radius of the ECWS was greatly magnified and encompassed the countries Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. The number of individual members increased by about 2000. Since then, the NAS has been one of the pillars of our confederation by participating actively in any discussion on general policy, by sending in highly qualified work for the exhibitions and by punctual presence at the council meetings.
During the following years five Spanish societies applied for membership of the confederation and, after the statutory requirements had been verified, they were invited to join. The watercolour society of Aragon, “Agrupaciòn de Acuarelistas de Aragón” and the Basque society, “Agrupaciòn de Acuarelistas Vascos”, signed the statutes respectively in January and February 2001. For the Madrid based society, “Agrupaciòn Española de Acuarelistas”, the statutes were signed in April 2001. The Catalonian society, “Agrupacio d’Acuarelistes de Catalunya”, signed in April 2002. And finally in May 2002, the “Agrupaciòn de Acuarelistas de Andalucìa” joined. At those occasions it became apparent how venerable some of these societies were : for instance, the society of Catalonia had been founded in 1865 !
In September 2003 the Finnish watercolour society, “Suomen Akvarellitaiteen Yhdistys”, affiliated to the confederation.
The latest of the Spanish societies to become a member of the confederation was the “Grupo de Acuarelistas de Baleares” in December 2003.
In the meantime the French aquarellistes had organized themselves and created the “Société Française de l’Aquarelle”. Although the French situation was still rather fragmented it was considered of immense value to have this country with its great tradition in the visual arts as a member of the confederation. The statutes were signed in March 2006.
Just recently the Confederation has been enriched by two other valuable member-societies : the Estonian Watercolour Society (Eesti Akvarellistide Ühendus) whose president, Mrs. Tiiu Pallo-Vaik, signed the statutes on July 20, 2011 and the Polish Watercolour Society (Stowarzyszenie Akwarelistów Polskich) whose president, Mr. Ryszard Rogala, signed the Statute on September 13, 2012.
A missing link
By that time the confederation had put itself on the map between the Mediterranean and the Arctic Circle. It was felt, however, that an important link was missing : Great Britain, the cradle of Western European watercolour tradition. The three British “royal” societies were therefore kindly invited to join the confederation. To my great surprise did none of the presidents answer my repeated letters of invitation. In a moment of desperation I took the liberty of asking the mediation of his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, he himself a gifted painter in watercolours. Thanks to his intervention I finally received a reaction from these venerated societies. The “Royal Watercolour Society” expressed its interest in a membership but wished to postpone a decision. Since then (2006) no further sign has come forward. The “Royal Institute” seemed to prefer its “splendid isolation”. The “Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour” did accept and in July 2006, their president signed the statutes. Thereby a symbolic bridge across the Channel had been built. However, in 2009, they regretfully resigned from the ECWS, because, among other factors, “the members had not been able to support the ECWS exhibitions”.
A record of activities
The annual exhibitions of the ECWS are held in the different member countries and organized in turn by the confederated societies. Next to the exhibition there are also other activities, such as colloquia, guided tours and painting workshops. Each exhibition is professionally documented with a splendid catalogue. To minimize the administrative work, the member-societies usually integrate these activities in their own working as an extension of their regular programme. During the past years these events took place in the following venues : 1998 and 1999 : Mol (Belgium); 2000 : Cannobio (Italy); 2001 : Antwerpen (Belgium); 2002 : Tjörn (Sweden); 2003 : Maccagno (Italy); 2004 : Arezzo (Italy); 2005 : Antwerpen (Belgium); 2006 : Bilbao (Spain); 2007 : Ronneby (Sweden); 2008 : Zaragoza (Spain); 2009 : Segovia (Spain); 2010 : Antwerpen (Belgium); 2011 : Turku (Finland); 2012: Genova (Italy). As can be seen from this list, in the beginning, the founding members, Belgium and Italy, have taken the task upon them but as the confederation gathered cruising speed the other societies have taken over.
Daydreams for the future
The European Confederation of Watercolour Societies had now assembled watercolour societies representing 11 European countries. Of course, many more established associations of painters in watercolours exist throughout the continent. It cannot be that in countries such as Germany, Switzerland, etc…with a great tradition in the visual arts, watercolour societies would not be willing to join the ECWS. So far I was not successful in making contact. With the extension of the European Union towards Eastern Europe there is a great number of potential members available for the confederation. It was felt, however, that it would be wise to pause for a while and let the organization mature.
One problem in joining together groups of painters from such a variety of traditions into one federation is the fact that the societies are structured in different ways. The Scandinavians for example, have brought together the five Nordic countries into one society. Their populations are so scattered throughout the vast area that practically no personal contacts are possible. The Spanish painters on the contrary are divided in regional societies and seem to have an active social intercourse. In other cases the society covers only a part of the national territory. Another problem is the different recruiting criteria for individuals as member of the societies. Within the societies there is vast difference in artistic level and in the balance of amateurism versus professionalism. This is inevitable because some of the societies also play the role of “academies”. The investigation of these particulars is in itself an interesting study of art history. It will be a task for the ECWS, perhaps the most difficult one, to harmonize the different outlooks.
Within the watercolourists’ community there is an often heard complaint that their artistic discipline is usually classified as a “minor” art by the public at large and that it seems to be outside the field of vision of the patrons of contemporary art. It cannot be denied that the technique of watercolour painting is often practised unprofessionally and that the undiscriminating proliferation of low level exhibitions tends to incriminate the medium with amateurism. I see it as one of the major tasks of the ECWS to counter this opinion by showing the art loving public work of the highest standard.
There are two different aspects to this : the conservation of technique and the innovation of vision. First there is the ever returning debate about “purism” against “mixed media”. I agree that artistic expression should have no limitations of a technical character and that only the artistic quality of the finished work counts. But, on the other hand, there is a kind of nobility in the restriction of one’s means; in our case the restriction to pure pigment, water and paper. “In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister”. This necessitates of course an utmost mastery of the medium. And it is here that our watercolour societies can play an essential role in conserving and propagating to younger generations the basic techniques of their ancient art. However, conservation of the traditional way of painting in watercolours should not hamper the development of a new or avant-garde iconography. Here also the ECWS should play a crucial role in selecting for the exhibitions those pictures that can stand as examples for such an innovative movement. As it is now, it is the responsibility of each of the member societies to make sure that their contribution to the annual exhibitions meets these criteria. I am happy to say that the Nordic Society has been exemplary on this point.
It is true that the different regions represented in our confederation have their own historic and cultural background and consequently the style, temperament and atmosphere of their artistic output will be very different. It would be a shame to lose this differentiation. It is a task of the ECWS to confront these different traditions and schools, not to equalize them but to make them cross-fertilize. This may lead the way for the “Art of Painting in Watercolours” to become a respected contemporary form of artistic expression. Not only the large international exhibitions but even more so the personal acquaintance between artists sharing the same passion is a springboard for achieving this goal.
Piet Van Leuven