Articles by Huw David Jones
In 1992, Super Furry Animals lead singer Gruff Rhys, then a recent art graduate of Manchester Metropolitan University, draped three straight lines of toilet paper down the steps of the National Museum of Wales. Said to represent a secret bardic symbol, the unsolicited performance was staged in protest at the lack of contemporary Welsh art in the museum’s galleries.
At the time, the National Museum favoured work by artists who represented the European mainstream, believing that Wales had no visual tradition and few artists of note. But pioneering research by art historians like Peter Lord revealing Wales’s rich history of image-making made this policy increasingly untenable.
The recent refurbishment of the National Museum’s galleries has therefore been informed by new a perception of Welsh art. The European mainstream maintains a high profile with rooms devoted to classical art in Britain, Italy and the Netherlands, whilst the popular Davies collection, with its superb work by Cezanne, Renoir, Monet and Van Gogh, remains on show in the Pyke Thompson Gallery. But complimenting these are four new galleries dedicated to art in Wales.
The first room focuses on Welsh portraiture from the Tudor and Stewart eras. This leads into a second devoted to Welsh masters of the 18th century, such as Richard Wilson, Thomas Jones and William Parry – artists trained in London and Italy, but who patriotically engaged with new perceptions of Welsh identity, such as the Romantic idea of the Bard. Their work also features in the third room on “Painting from Nature”.
The final semi-circular gallery is where the museum’s new policy favouring Welsh art comes into its own. Entitled “Power of the Land,” it focuses on the representation of the Welsh landscape over the past three centuries. The emphasis is on how areas like Snowdonia, Pembrokeshire or the Valleys have inspired artists in different ways. And although the collection is unduly weighted towards rural scenery, it reveals several gems such as John Piper’s magical Ebbw Vale at Night or the lonely, glacial forms of Manfred Uhlman’s Welsh Mountains. This represents a big step towards the prospect of a Welsh gallery of art – and one which isn’t draped in toilet paper.
The new gallery celebrating art in Wales open at the National Museum Cardiff in Summer 2008.
This post was originally published by Buzz magazine.