There’s only one person in Swansea known by everyone as ‘Glenys’. And there couldn’t be a more popular or fitting choice for the Glynn Vivian’s first big exhibition after its five-year sleep than a retrospective of the works of Glenys Cour, born in 1924 and still painting daily at the age of 92.
What’s more, it’s a really big show, taking up the whole space in the extension gallery and packing the paintings, glass and other exhibits in tightly to use every bit of space. It’s good to see that the art of curation still in good shape. The progression from room to room makes perfect sense, and every room offers insights without a trace of didacticism. It’s been a difficult task for the selectors, Mel Gooding and the Gallery staff, especially since so many of the works are in private ownership.
The first work in the first room is a landscape, from the Glynn Vivian’s permanent collection, painted in 1933 by Lucien Pissarro of Cefn Bryn, the sandstone backbone of the Gower peninsula (it looks rather over-mountainous to me). Alongside is a tribute, the same scene painted by Glenys Cour in 1981. It’s a happy juxtaposition. It announces from the start two of the abiding themes of Glenys’s long career: the painted landscape, both topographic and internal, and the inexhaustible possibilities of the Gower countryside.
In one way, though, the twinning of the two paintings is misleading. It suggests that Glenys modelled her art on those of other artists, and was ‘influenced’ by teachers or others. The rest of the show makes it clear that the opposite is nearer the truth. None of the many artists she encountered, even her revered teacher Ceri Richards and her sculptor husband Ron Cour, seem to have left much impact on her practice. Glenys has always found her own way, following her own artistic instincts without the need for models or masters. (In turn, she herself has founded no school and left no disciples.)
Two of the earliest ‘mature’ paintings in the exhibition, The pool, Cefn bryn (1963) and North Gower marshes (1968) have strong compositions with subtle textures, but they use restrained colours and might easily be attributed to other artists in a ‘blind’ test. But the experience of working with the bright lights of architectural glass in Swansea – there are examples in the show of stained glass from four of her pupils, Alex Beleschenko, Martin Donlin, Amber Hiscott and Catrin Jones – left a lasting mark on her retina. It’s her bright, resounding colours that have become her badge and that come to mind straight away when you say the words ‘a Glenys painting’.
Sally Moss, in her recent talk about Glenys, tracked down origins for two of those colours – her blue comes direct from the heavenly cobalt of the ceiling in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, and the gold from the background of medieval icons in Russian museums – and she recalled Glenys’s reverence for the canvases of Mark Rothko. Her colours are dense, pure and powerful, but it’s in combining of them that Glenys is most Glenys. She’s never reluctant to let reds, oranges and pinks rub up against one other quite awkwardly, against colour ‘rules’. Colours rarely lie statically or lazily alongside one another: there’s usually a movement afoot, sometimes smooth like molten metal, sometimes a quicker flow. Blocks of colour always show a preference for blending one into another rather than being stand-offish, and Glenys always treats these transitions with the greatest of care. This is obvious from the excellent film by Toril Brancher that accompanies the exhibition – a film, by the way, that allows what Glenys normally denies to ordinary mortals, a glimpse into her studio and her working methods.
A painting by Ceri Richards that pops up early on reminds you that Glenys’s landscapes avoid the hard edges that inhabits his. They’re also free of any hint of surrealism, the suggestive organic, intestinal forms that are always bursting from the belly of so many of his canvases. She relies on simpler, and subtler, means of linking paint to imagination.
Most of the big colour paintings, from the 1980s on, hang on to a representational frame, even if it’s just no more than a single horizon. An interesting and persistent feature is that the viewer is often given a ‘way in’ to the landscape – a literal ‘path’, as in the early example, After sunset, Gower (c1980), where a broad orange lane leads you towards the successive folds of the land and the sky beyond the horizon. A series of later Gower landscapes, though, placed in a long row in the exhibition, translate this device into wider, wilder clefts and splits in the landscape. These are darker in mood than most of Glenys’s paintings, which tend to reflect the exuberance and joy of her own character, and in their bareness and abstraction could easily be internalised as mental states.
One room is devoted to Glenys’s illustrative work. It’s tempting to see, in the lack of any perceived conflict between ‘pure work’ and ‘illustration’ and in the easy crossover between visual art and literature, a Swansea tradition at work – specifically, Ceri Richards’s interest in music and literature, especially Dylan Thomas, as themes in his painting. Glenys is herself a writer, of poems and short stories, and she’s also naturally generous when organisations like the Swansea Festival and Brecon Jazz approach her for artwork to publicise their events. For these works she draws on her stained glass background and her more abstract paintings like Blue monument (1977). Colour and collage combine too in the ‘hieratic’ pictures, which recall Byzantine and Russian painting: a selection of these is mounted, very effectively, as a kind of ‘tower’ in the exhibition.
The show ends with more recent paintings of flowers, another of Glenys’s main themes. The most striking is called White flower (2012). A sudden burst of flowers explodes towards you, the white petals dominant. Above them, a broad strip of bright, sunset orange flames across. The display is enclosed in a broad frame of dark blue and mauve, a threat of impending night. This is a work as powerful as Glenys has ever made, tightly composed but passionately painted, conventional in theme but rich in association and suggestion.
Glenys is a Swansea artist. Despite her love of her birthplace, Fishguard, it’s Gower that has fed her a constant stream of themes and sensations, decade after decade. She’s still to receive the recognition she deserves outside south Wales. This exhibition, with its catalogue (alas, still not available because of production delays), might alter that.