Barrington Watson's Retrospective currently showing at the National Gallery of Jamaica and two annex sites at the Olympia and the Bank of Jamaica, is the largest endeavor devoted to the work of a single artist that the NGJ has ever undertaken. With more than 250 works including paintings, drawings and prints, the retrospective traces the development and fruition of Watson's oeuvre, also documented in a 192 page colour-illustrated catalogue providing scholarly essays and supporting material. The huge crowd that attended the opening, confirmed that this show will be a 'blockbuster', a term rarely required in the Jamaican art scene since few exhibitions here ever achieve that scale or level of popularity.
The Jamaican public's unwavering admiration of Barrington Watson's art since he first returned to Jamaica in the 1961, on the cusp of Jamaica's Independence from British rule, tells us a great deal about our passion for art and also about our inherently conservative taste. Watson's academic approach applied to history-painting, portraiture, landscapes and still-life, found favour with a local viewing public at a time when other modern artists including our own Karl Parboosingh were abandoning traditional methods and approaches to painting for more conceptual models that suited ideas of liberation and the free thinking 1960s. Instead, Jamaican audiences were satisfied to celebrate Watson's essentially representational imagery that reinforced rather than challenged romanticized notions of ourselves. Beginning with Ignacy Ecker, our first professional art writer, reviews promoted Watson as a master painter par excellence with very little critical judgement of his work.
This retrospective displaying Watson's paintings over more than 50 years provides an opportunity to finally critically engage with this artist's work; its nationalist ideology, its bourgeois values and its artistic strengths and weaknesses, at a time when the country is itself embarking on a year of celebration and a process of introspection.