Late style and Glenys Cour

February 3, 2024 2 Comments

To mark Glenys Cour’s hundredth birthday the Mission Gallery is currently showing around thirty of her paintings, some oil on canvas, others oil on paper.  Most were painted in the last five years, so it’s a very different exhibition from the big retrospective in the Glynn Vivian in 2017, which looked back at over sixty years of making art.  As well as being a cause of joy and celebration, it raises some interesting questions, especially about what Theodor Adorno and Edward Said called ‘late style’.

Glenys Cour, Sketchbook

When Adorno coined the term, in an essay he wrote in 1934, the artist he had in mind was Beethoven, whose final period included compositions, like the Missa Solemnis and the last string quartets.  These, he said, far from being quiet summations of a lifetime’s music, were uncompromising, challenging works, that broke with accepted form and sonority.  As Said put it, ‘in place of serenity and maturity, one finds a bristling, difficult and unyielding – perhaps inhuman – challenge.’ It’s this kind of striking out into new territory, by late-working artists like Thomas Mann, Jean Genet, C.P. Cavafy and Glenn Gould, that interests Adorno and Said.

On the face of it, Glenys’s paintings hardly fit this model of late style.  They might be thought more akin to those late works that show what Said calls ‘unearthly serenity’, a quiet summation and wrapping-up of all that’s gone before.

Glenys Cour, Blodau’r haf

As ever, colour is the thing.  Ever since her days making and teaching stained glass, and since the day Josef Albers’s revolutionary book Interaction of colour burst in on her artist’s eye, it’s permeated almost everything she’s done.  You’d never mistake Glenys’s colours for anyone else’s.  They have a glowing intensity that sets them apart, and a bold apposition of colours that wouldn’t belong together in the work of others: in one of the pictures here, silver, maroon, white, blue, purple, black and orange all share the canvas.

Glenys Cour, Yellow dusk 2

Landscapes, or landscape-based works, have been a constant for Glenys at least since since the 1980s, and there are plenty of them to be seen in the Mission’s show.  The paintings have long lost all trace of topographical reference to the landforms of Gower, the source of so much early inspiration.  Instead, they’ve evolved over the years into generic, ‘ideal’ versions of the familiar hills and valleys – visions of a darkened land irradiated by the rising or setting sun.  That might suggest an imaginary, inner landscape, or an unattainable dream, but Glenys often supplies a ‘way in’ to these pictures – a gently curving lane or path that offers to take us, from where we stand, into the heart of the scene.  She’s inviting us not just to admire, but to share in experience of her vision.

Glenys Cour, Web of light (detail)

But there’s something else about these more recent ‘landscapes’, something that makes you question whether they really fit in with the serene ‘summation’ in Said’s formulation of one kind of late style.  It’s not just that she’s abandoned the trappings of real landscapes.  These pictures are dark, troubled and mobile.  Skies are blue-black, sometimes pieced by cold, piercing moonlight, or cut apart by lightning-like streaks of silver.  The land looks dark and forbidding, or else, as in ‘Rising moon’, it’s a volcanic, shifting mass of fiery orange (probably the dominant colour in this exhibition).  ‘Web of light’, with its swirling cords of dark colours and hint of violent apocalypse, looks back to William Blake or John Martin.

Glenys Cour, Rising moon

You get a similar feeling of drama and unease from ‘The perfume of flowers’, which combines ‘landscape’ and ‘flower’ genres.  A dark blue curtain has been drawn back – an old Dutch painter’s device – to reveal a window, and, beyond it, a saturated yellow dusk.  In the foreground is a blue vase with flowers.  The flowers are cut, but they possess a vivid, animal life of their own, leaping out of the canvas towards us.  The violently red flower in the centre almost looks carnivorous.

Glenys Cour, The perfume of flowers

Many of the other flower paintings in the show have a similar un-still look to them.  In ‘Songs of renewal’, which roars with colours, four large flowerheads dance wildly round one another, partly imprisoned in a strange rectangular frame of fluorescent yellow-green.  Flowers reappear in four eerie ‘Blodeuwedd’ paintings.  According to the tale Math, mab Mathonwy, Blodeuwedd was the woman made from flowers, who was punished, after plotting murder, by being changed into an owl.  The flowers plaited into her hair have little in common with the pretty ones you’d find in the average still life.  The power of myth has transformed them.

Glenys Cour, Songs of renewal

So this is no tranquil, composed collection of works produced towards the end of a long career.  The paintings belong, without apology, to a centuries-old Romantic tradition of art.  They deal in uncertain thoughts and intense feelings, and the language they speak comes from a profound part of the artist’s mind.  This show should be seen by anyone who likes art to speak with skill and passion.  It’s a just tribute to one of the most remarkable artists Wales has produced in our time.

Glenys Cour, Songs of renewal (detail)

‘100 years of Glenys Cour’ is at the Mission Gallery, Swansea, from 3 February to 4 May 2024.  (Diolch i Rhian Wyn Stone am y cyfle i weld y sioe cyn ei agor.)

Comments (2)

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  1. Sian Evans says:

    Lovely – the art and the descriptions. Thank you.

  2. Richard Saville says:

    Wonderful article. Thank you. Interesting references.

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