visual culture wales

Articles by Huw David Jones

Background 1965: Making the Abstract Accessible

People often find abstract art incomprehensible.  The idea that a picture can be admired purely for its use of colour, shape and form rather than for depicting a person or thing is one many find perplexing. Some even think abstract art is a scam – a confidence trick pulled by artists to mask the fact they can’t paint properly.

During the 1960s the Welsh Committee of the Arts Council, the body responsible for promoting the arts in Wales, looked for ways to counter these prejudices.  The Welsh Committee had become a champion of abstract art in its bid to raise Wales’s profile in the British and international art world, but realised the public didn’t always share its enthusiasm for the new aesthetic.

Victor Pasmore

Victor Pasmore at his home in Blackheath

In 1965 it organised Background, the first in a series of experimental exhibitions which aimed to make abstract art more accessible. The show invited four leading artists of the day – Merlyn Evans, Ivon Hitchens, Victor Pasmore and Alan Davie – to present a single painting alongside photographs of their home and studio.  In the accompanying catalogue, curators Ken Baynes and Peter Jones wrote about their visit to meet each of the artists. The idea was that audiences might find abstract art less baffling if they saw artists as ordinary people who, like them, ‘had difficulties in filling up his income tax forms’ or ‘worried about going out on rainy days without his mackintosh’.

Ivon Hitchens

Ivon Hitchens painting near his home in West Sussex

The exhibition not only visited galleries but also schools and libraries, where it could be seen by people who weren’t normally interested in art.  There is no record of how ordinary members of the public responded to the show, but art critics were generally positive.

The Western Mail’s Griffith Williams called the exhibition ‘a bold stroke of imagination’. Likewise, Derek Butler in the South Wales Evening Argus praised the ‘enterprising’ Welsh Committee for putting together an exhibition ‘of quite outstanding interest and merit’, though felt that the experiment worked ‘only partly’:

‘Alan Davie emerges as a flamboyant, romantic character but nothing that I learned about his Cornish background and love of gliding added to my great admiration for his work….

Alan Davie

Alan Davie with his glider  in Cornwall

‘I doubt if any number of photographs of Ivon Hitchens’ paintbrushes in a jamjar will ever persuade me to take his empty canvases seriously. But the section on Merlyn Evans was useful. Now I, for one, feel considerably more sympathy for his tough architectural black and white images after being nudged into seeing how they grow from his own shabbier part of North London with its bleak Victorian houses and flyovers that reflect in the grey damp pavements’.

Traditional art enthusiasts were more skeptical, however. Some complained the exhibition smacked at ‘popularisation’, or looked like something from a ‘colour supplement’.

Merlyn Evans at his local pub in Islington

Merlyn Evans at his local pub in Islington

The organisers were unapologetic. ‘My reaction is that this is something which is quite valid for art’, Peter Jones told the Western Mail. ‘And anyway, I am on the side of popularisation’.

Despite the mixed reaction, the Welsh Committee felt the experiment was worth repeating, and a second Background exhibition was organised in 1966. This would be the start of a shift towards a radical policy of democratisation which would culminate in the ambitious Art and Society series of the late-1960s and early-1970s.

It is difficult to know whether Background succeeded in its aim of making abstract art more comprehensible. Nevertheless, the case well illustrates the Welsh Committee’s efforts to attract new audiences through a willingness to experiment with the way art was presented. That is something often missing in today’s museums and galleries.

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