Forget MOMA New York. The place to be for the next three months is MOMA Machynlleth. There you’ll find a collection of paintings and other works, from the eighteenth century to the present, that will give you as much visual pleasure and intellectual provocation as any exhibition on at the moment.
The title of the show is ‘Romancing Wales’, and it’s the most ambitious ever mounted by MOMA. MOMA, in case you haven’t been there, is a remarkable gallery, housed in an old chapel, Tabernacl, and an adjoining building, near the centre of Machynlleth. Owned by a charitable trust, it’s small, but it holds a permanent collection, stages temporary exhibitions and doesn’t charge for entry. It couldn’t survive without the product of sales, the generosity of patrons and sponsors – and the ingenuity of its trustees.
The exhibition’s curator, Peter Wakelin, has brought together a stunning set of works, from private as well as public collections, to illustrate three themes, all connected with the landscape of Wales: the birth of romantic art in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the ‘neo-romantic’ movement of the 1920s and 1930s, and the persistence of the romantic vein in art in Wales since then.
What is romanticism? An impossible question to answer in any concrete way. In any case, indefiniteness is one of the concepts at the core of the romantic. In the case of landscape painting, the romantic painter, you might argue, abandons a topographical attempt to render the likeness of the scene on canvas, and instead transforms the landscape through the prism of the inner self – and a wide range of other concerns filtered through the self: memory, community, politics, spirit of place, spirit of the age. In style, a concern with construction, proportion and harmony gives way to dramatic movement, imbalance and colour contrast. But the differences between a romantic approach to landscape and a classical (or topographical, or traditional) are hard to maintain, as is clear from the career of John Sell Cotman, represented here by one of his least classical works, ‘The distant mountain: Cader Idris’.
Fortunately, Peter Wakelin avoids arid definitions. His boundaries of the romantic are fluid enough to admit all kinds of artist and work. The first room, containing the earlier works, has a painting by Paul Sandby, not normally thought of as a romantic, and the last section features a peach of a painting by Roger Cecil, often considered a constructivist.
The protean form of the romantic is one thing for you to ponder as you walk round, but there are plenty of others. For example, how did the visions of Wales explored by Wales-based artists and those by artists visiting Wales differ? It’s interesting that it’s the Welshman from Penegoes, Richard Wilson, who’s the first artist to paint a Welsh mountain, Cadair Idris, from a vantage point – the western flank of Mynydd Moel – that required a strenuous climb to reach it. Wilson’s great achievement, as the recent exhibition at National Museum Wales confirmed, was to break free from conventional Italian landscape models and create a new kind of landscape in his native area. But visitors from outside Wales were equally capable of trekking deep into the country. Turner, who came to Wales five times from 1792, was famous for his physical energy and adventurousness. He was also alert to the cultural context of what he was painting. His oil painting of Dolbadarn Castle, on loan from the National Library of Wales, looks at first sight like a ‘pure’ landscape, but in fact it’s a history, even a political, painting, since at its base is the tiny and tragic figure of Owain Lawgoch, being dragged to his imprisonment in the tower, ‘where hopeless Owen, long imprison’d pin’d / and wrung his hands for liberty, in vain’, as Turner’s accompanying poem has it.
The paintings of Mary Lloyd-Jones, born in Devil’s Bridge, Ceredigion, are steeped in the linguistic and literary traditions of her country, and the Welsh language and its continuation are central to her work. But visitors to Wales were not necessarily unaware of the cultural location of their landscapes. David Jones, though he spent little time in Wales, imbued his lyrical paintings of Capel-y-ffin in the 1920s with a closely studied and deeply felt knowledge of Welsh myth and history. In the 1950s, Josef Herman settled in, and became part of, the coalmining community of Ystradgynlais and painted the miners there with a deep sympathy and understanding.
Landscape, though, can be highly political, especially when the scene of conflict between those who inhabit it and those who visit. Here the ‘inhabitant artists’ speak with their own, authoritative voices. An artist’s book by Tim Davies, ‘A place I know well’, shreds and reassembles the formulaic language used by estate agents to advertise rural Pembrokeshire houses – homes often sold to incomers prepared to pay prices beyond the reach of residents. A more extreme ironic reaction comes from the ‘destructivist’ artist Ivor Davies in his painting ‘Taranis’. His ‘paint’ consists in part of red earth dug from Mynydd Eppynt, land that had once supported farming communities, but appropriated and still held by the military. Red flames shoot from the roof of a farmhouse. Taranis was the Celtic god of thunder. In a new, cruel irony, his name has been re-borrowed in recent years by BAE Systems as the name for an advanced stealth combat drone.
Since romanticism affected many forms of art, another theme that echoes through the exhibition is the complex web of connections between the visual and the literary. Lloyd-Jones, David Jones and Ivor Davies are all artists vitally aware of the written word and the oral tradition of myth that preceded it. There are many more here. The most visceral paintings of Ceri Richards, the leading Welsh-born ‘neo-romantic’, take as their starting point early poems of Dylan Thomas, especially ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower’. Iwan Bala’s ‘The leaving boat’, a tense and lurid painting, recalls the voyage of Branwen across the sea to Ireland, a trip that would bring disaster in its wake.
Landscape traditionally comes yoked to the adjective ‘rural’. Most of the pictures in this exhibition take rural Wales as their setting. Sometimes that setting is pastoral and agricultural, as in the work of John Elwyn and Eleri Mills. In his watercolour ‘The southern extremity of Carnedde Mountain in Radnorshire’, the late eighteenth century painter Thomas Jones translates the scenery around his home in Pencerrig into a kind of Garden of Eden. More often it’s the higher and wilder places that draw the artist’s eye, naturally enough in the case of impressionable English visitors of lowland origin. In his handsome booklet accompanying the exhibition Peter Wakelin points out that chasing the sublime preceded by several decades other pursuits of romanticism, like the picturesque (which had a Welsh origin, on the River Wye). The mountains of Wales could supply ample examples of the sublime, and they recur often throughout the exhibition, from the Cadair Idris of Wilson and Cotman to the Snowdon of David Tress’s 2007 painting ‘Light passing (Llyn Llydaw towards Snowdon)’, where a sudden rain squall seems to have hit the paper with a violent force.
But industrial and urban Wales offer equally rich ores for the romantic artist. One of the earliest works in the exhibition is William Havell’s terrific oil painting of the copper mine workings on Parys Mountain (1803). Tiny figures labour on the floor of the great excavation; above them ropes are suspended from timber gantries projecting from the quarry lip. Others painted the same scene around the same time, but Havell’s view is outstanding – unparalleled, maybe, before Sebastião Salgado’s famous photographs of the Serra Pelada gold mines of Brazil.
There are other works, by Josef Herman, Bert Isaac, Ernie Zobole and Leslie Moore, that explore the industrial present (increasingly, the industrial past) of Wales, and its urban centres. But there could have been more, which would have had the effect of increasing the proportion of home-grown artists in the show.
These are just some of the thoughts that occurred to me as I wandered round MOMA. But there’s no need to theorise in this exhibition. The works are so well chosen and so diverse, all you need to do is let them sink into your eyes. John Craxton’s spiky ‘Tree root in an estuary’, George Mayor-Marton’s luminescent, El Greco-tinged ‘Llanthony valley’, Sutherland’s ‘Welsh hills’, a study of almost Italian warmth, John Piper’s ‘Rocks on Tryfan’, a wind-blown swirl of shapes and colours snatched from the harshest and least yielding of all Welsh mountains, Ceri Richards’s drawing ‘Wooded landscape’, where the trees look similarly uprooted from their ground: all these and many more are worth much more than a passing glance.
This is a rich and varied exhibition, generous in its scope and curated with imagination and care.
‘Romancing Wales’ proves one point, and has one mission.
The point proved is that it’s possible, even on this fairly modest scale, to trace the development of art in Wales across the centuries in a coherent but undogmatic way – and in a way that no national institution in Wales succeeds in doing at present. Peter Lord’s recent major book The tradition: a new history of Welsh art, 1400-1990 tells one version of the story, but within the confines of a codex. There’s no substitute for being able to see the works themselves, together, in the flesh.
The mission is to show how central Wales was and still is to the ‘romantic landscape’ in the broadest sense. The truth of this proposition, so long ignored or denied by art historians and critics outside Wales, is now plain to see.
‘Romancing Wales’ is an important event. It deserves wide recognition. Now if only the London art critics, powerful but the opposite of adventurous or broadminded, could be bothered to get off their backsides and take the train to Machynlleth …
‘Romancing Wales’ is on at MOMA Machynlleth until 18 June 2016. A series of associated events has been arranged, including a one-day conference The power of place (21 May).