Theatre in Wales

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“The most difficult thing to predict is the past"

On Criticism & Critics

Peter Lord , National Museum Cardiff , March 11, 2016
On Criticism & Critics by Peter Lord It is a nice paradox. Borges said something in similar vein with his observation that writers of greatness create their predecessors. Peter Lord is in a lower-ground floor conference room of the National Museum in Cardiff. The event is associated with his substantial study “the Tradition” but it is more than a launch. His hour long talk entails a criticism of criticism. Lord mixes cogency, structure, energy and enthusiasm. He is quite correct. The present dips in and out of history to meet its own concerns. The past is perpetually up for grabs.

Lord presents the thesis that has been his historiographical achievement. Wales has a visual tradition. In the opposing ring is a collection of curators and Arts Council grandees who have combined in the past to declare Wales the land of the voice. Look for a visual tradition and there is none.

Yet tradition, in Lord's telling, is a story that culture devises to relate to itself. Hence the paradox of a movable history that shifts as the zeitgeist amends it. The notion that Wales was unable to sustain an ecology of painters and patrons is “a historical nonsense.” A tradition becomes itself in the telling.

This theory of a movable and made tradition Lord locates in an essay of 1918 written by Van Wyck Brooks. The USA also for long held a cultural self-image of neo-colonial inferiority. Brooks called his essay “On Creating a Usable Past.” “The naming of things is the birth of consciousness. Without names we cannot think.” Lord's talk is thick with naming. He is light on theory. Lord firmly states his vocation as art historian rather than art critic. He gives precedence to the art work as a physical object made under the conditions of a particular time and place. He shows a slide of a modest thatched cottage. The location is Llanidloes in the early nineteenth century. It was the place where two artists locked in debate over their interpretations of a piece of writing by John Calvin. This was not a culture on the margin.

A few square feet of paper or canvas with marks upon them are not a detached exercise in form and tone. The results have been achieved with time and effort, each one both belonging to and adding to culture. Every picture has its own biography. Perception of an artwork in isolation is selection but so too the narrative that links them all is equally an act of preference and selection. The visual record, in the telling of the official curatoriat, presents a Wales that has no imprint of industrial strife or depression. This official record of the art of Wales does not reflect the historical experience of the bulk of its people.

“Apparently neither the coal strike of 1926-27 nor the great Depression of the 1930s had left any visual impact.” “According to this official Arts Council version of Welsh art history the most important feature of the inter-war years were Ernst, Picasso and Matisse on the abstractions of Ceri Richard.” In this version of history Ben Nicholson gives advice to David Jones and gets in. Evan Walters and Archie Griffiths are out.

“Living within an identifying matrix of history, topography and language is of fundamental importance to the human psyche.” A philosopher, J R Jones, has aided his thinking, as has his experience of the politics of Wales. “Working within Wales in the aftermath of the debacle of the devolution referendum of 1979, it seemed to me that the absence of such institutional and intellectual validation of our own cultural product was among the root causes of our psychological dependency that the referendum result signified.”

His career took on a purpose that was avowedly political “I felt that I could contribute to encouraging the psychological shift necessary to secure political movement by working in the field of art history.” A Keeper of Art at the National Museum spies him and enquires what Lord might be up to. Well” he says on learning”there's no rubbish like your own rubbish, is there?”

Criticism is precision in detail. In a characteristic piece of detective work Lord has followed a picture back to a London sale in 1886 from its home in Llantarnam Abbey in Monmouthshire. A misnaming of the subject occurs and is uncorrected in a scholarly work published by Cardiff's Keeper of Art.

Lord cites Winifred Coombe Tennant on an earlier holder of the post ‘Poor fellow, so kind, and so utterly boring.’ That first mis-attributor in Cardiff broadcasts his credo in a radio discussion: “An artist is different from other people” declares the custodian of the nation’s art. He does not believe that “the community in England or Wales will ever be interested in art.”

Lord has been a sculpture-maker himself and he knows that a work comes from somewhere. It carries its autobiography and knowledge of that biography shapes perception. He has small patience with ‘the mythology of mainstream art history…let the picture speak for itself.” His memoir is not called “Relationships with Pictures” for nothing. A chapter has been given to the portrait by Kyffin Williams of Jack Jones. It is one of the most revealing accounts of the making of a portrait and the relationship between sitter and representer. At first the artist is told that his depiction is ridiculous. Jones changes his view to say Williams has got him absolutely right.

Of course it need not be a question of dichotomy between image as subject matter and image composed of form and colour. It is content and form all at once. “Dominoes” by Evan Walters has a history to it that melds subject and artist to patronage and exhibition in Swansea's Glynn Vivian Gallery. Lord the historian sees the elaboration of structure and the psychological insight of the depiction of a mother with two sons. Yet the identities are not necessary for appreciation of Evan Walters' colour scheme. A pink-purple rug sits on a purple floor of a lustre to reflect the floor. It would have delighted the eyes of any Bloomsbury viewer.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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