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Welsh art of the 20th century is the story of how artists grappled with their tumultuous times,
producing work that sometimes reflected and sometimes challenged the Wales they'd emerged from.
Once upon a time, I wanted to be one of those artists.
And after school here in Aberdare, I went to Hornsey College of Art
in London and straight into the art college revolt of 1968.
All in agreement? I propose that we now march down to Wood Green Civic Centre...
Later, as Minister for the Arts, I hit the headlines
when I criticised what I saw as the emptiness of some modern art.
Now I've retired from politics and taken up painting again.
In this series, I'm going to look at the story of art in Wales during the 20th century, meet some
amazing artists, and discover some unforgettable works of art.
In the years after the Second World War, there was a momentum to Welsh art.
But there was no single style or school of painting.
Instead, a number of talented individualists
created their own pictures of Wales and in the process, made some lasting images of Welsh life.
The Second World War caused a massive movement of people
around Europe, and Welsh art benefited from an influx of refugees.
Two artists who had escaped from fascism and made their home in Wales where Heinz Koppel and Josef Herman.
Both Jewish, they had fled the Nazis and made their way eventually to the valleys of South Wales.
The place had a profound impact upon their work,
and in turn, their work had a dramatic effect upon Welsh art.
Josef Herman was a Polish artist whose flight from the Nazis
took him first to Glasgow, and finally to Ystradgynlais, where he settled in 1944.
The town was at the height of the anthracite coalfield,
and Herman was inspired by the sight of miners working.
He returned to the subject again and again during a long career which
ended with his death in the year 2000.
For Herman, the miner became a symbolic form, and his paintings of them became famous.
These large panels, now in the Glynn Vivian in Swansea, were commissioned for the Festival of Britain in 1951.
Josef Herman was celebrated in his own lifetime.
But another emigre artist was less well-known, but equally influential.
The German, Heinz Koppel, settled here in Dowlais, near Merthyr, in 1944.
Part of an artistic community, he taught local people and young artists.
His widow, Pip, remembers those tough early years.
He was eccentric, you'd call it now.
We didn't use words like that then.
But he was a very approachable person.
Not a jolly person, he was serious.
If somebody wanted to work, he took them seriously.
And he was interested to see
what people who came to paint chose to paint, to do.
He painted them, and they painted
what they found and saw.
Lots of young artists came to see him, because of course Heinz was an established painter.
Were they in awe of Heinz?
How did he greet them?
They never expressed awe, there was a very
good relationship, but very clearly an appreciation of each other.
him up there and they down there.
Heinz Koppel's effect on young artists in Wales
wouldn't be seen for another decade, but at the time, the Welsh arts establishment found him difficult.
Was he too much of a modernist for them?
No, I think the European element confused them,
which came out and was too strange, too strong, at that time.
If Heinz Koppel was too European for some in Wales, Ceri Richards,
the best-known Welsh artist of the mid-20th century,
had no such problems.
In the 1930s, Ceri Richards embraced the new European art.
And after the Second World War, he became one of the most successful British artists.
Inspired by Matisse and Picasso, he produced dreamlike, Surrealist paintings.
Richards's paintings of this period are complex, multi-layered works.
The Cycle of Nature, from 1944, reflected his idea that even in war,
nature will take over and a rebirth will begin again.
Ceri Richards's daughter, Rhiannon, explained to me how her father worked.
This is one of your father's sketchbooks.
When would this be from, roughly?
Well, he's actually taken the trouble to date it. New Year's Day, 1949.
It's very interesting, although it's quite a rough black and white sketch.
We can see the individual colours here.
-And they are directions for a painting.
-That's right, they're directions.
Every little piece has got its own colour.
This says dark pink, I think.
This was a very detailed plan for a future painting.
And there are lots of drawings in here.
In this one, a third of the picture is a piano.
-What was it about pianos and pianists and music and so on?
Well, he was trained
to play the piano from an early age, as were all the family.
And he remained a very, very good pianist and as soon as he could afford it, he bought a piano
and had pianos all his life, and played every day.
And played very, very well.
This features in different ways in such a lot of his work.
This picture, I love particularly, because of those fingers!
-They're great fingers, aren't they?
-But they're so different from the drawings he did of you, for example.
He employed a different method, or a different approach, if you like, when he was doing pictures of the family.
He did beautiful ones of me when I was a baby and a young child, and of
his sister, and of my sister, and of his wife as well.
Someone else who remembers Ceri Richards is the artist Joan Baker.
Now 88, she was one of his students at Cardiff School of Art during the Second World War.
For wartime students like Joan, seeing the latest modern art was almost impossible.
But Ceri Richards owned a surrealist masterpiece by the German artist, Max Ernst.
So, Ceri Richards brought into the Cardiff School of Art a real painting by Max Ernst, original?
-Yes, a real Max Ernst.
-And he brought it in for you to see?
Oh, he brought it in for the students to see.
You know, just to look down and see this, and there it was.
It was fascinating.
And the wonderful feeling of seeing the living thing, because wartime
was very restricted as to what you could see. We were lucky.
It was just so thrilling and exciting.
I don't know why people ever bother
with drink or take drugs or anything, the sheer excitement of art...
is so wonderful in itself.
Joan Baker later became a lecturer at Cardiff School of Art,
and has spent the last 60 years painting the South Wales landscape.
Just as Joan Baker had been taught by Ceri Richards, now it was her turn to pass on ideas about art.
And after the war, a new generation of Cardiff art students were heading down the tracks.
The late 1940s were a time of optimism in South Wales.
The mines had just been nationalised, Nye Bevan's health service was up and running,
and increasing numbers of people were going to further education, including to art college.
Among them where a group of young men who travelled by train every day
from the Rhondda Valley to the Cardiff School of Art.
Their carriage became a legendary mobile art class.
These young art students called themselves the Rhondda Group, and
included artists like Ernie Zobole, Robert Thomas and Charlie Burton.
Charlie Burton is one of the last survivors of the group.
Now in his early 80s, he's still painting.
We were a little group and we spoke continually
about the arts.
It was quite a long journey from Treherbert to Cardiff, by train.
It seemed very short, it seemed very short.
Because the discussion was so intense.
You know the way time plays tricks.
Nobody was allowed to get into our compartment.
We spoke about painting all the way down in the train, and looked at one another's drawings.
-You were obsessed by the subject?
-Yes, yes, we were.
There were big arguments of who was the better painter, Matisse or Picasso. Bonnard was still alive.
We were just living the business.
The Rhondda Group I think, with hindsight now, we realise more and more how exceptional they were.
And they emerged in the immediate post-war period.
And here we have a kind of major transition point.
During the Second World War, you actually had Ceri Richards
teaching in Cardiff College of Art, alongside Evan Charlton.
And the exceptional art being produced then was by the teachers.
But come 1945 and thereafter, it switches now to a new generation,
and these are not the teachers, these are the students.
They were Rhondda rooted, and yet their vision was European.
We were terribly interested in everything that was happening in the world.
We knew that we weren't Cezanne or Van Gogh, living in the south of France.
You know, we lived
in the Rhondda, and there was a feeling after the war
that one could really do something oneself, exactly where one was.
TRAIN WHISTLE BLOWS
Perhaps the best known artist of the Rhondda Group was Ernest Zobole.
The son of Italian immigrants, he was inspired by Heinz Koppel
to create dreamlike paintings of his home town, a kind of Welsh magic realism.
The University of Glamorgan in Pontypridd has a fine collection of Ernest Zobole's work.
Art historian, Ceri Thomas, whose father Robert was also a key
member of the Rhondda Group, is an expert on Zobole.
very early on, even when he was still an art student, was painting
in colours which looked like very, very avant-garde European painters.
Where would he have seen this kind of work?
Very early on, they were travelling to London and looking at the latest exhibitions.
So Van Gogh, you know, the explosion of colour that was Van Gogh, was known to Zobole.
But closer to home, I think it really was Ceri Richards.
In these pictures, in the early Fifties, he's limiting his palette to a blue.
And Richards had experimented with that same kind of palette, himself looking back at people like Matisse,
in a series of paintings of Trafalgar Square.
So we have Zobole then looking at the squares and the streets
in the Rhondda,
and introducing this blue, as you say, avant-garde palette.
As his career progressed, Ernest Zobole's paintings became more stylised,
transforming the Rhondda into an abstract and simplified universe.
In the final years before his death in 1999, Ernest Zobole
created a unique image of his native valley, often seen at night, and full of jewel-like colours.
When I have spoken about getting different angles, different shots, different viewpoints
into the same picture, getting in more than one could see,
as it were, from one viewpoint.
This night-time thing helps in doing that, because looking round
now, you can see objects illuminated, and they crop up at different levels of a black curtain, as it were.
Ceri, this is the mid-1990s, and this is one of Ernie Zobole's last paintings.
It's about a man who knows he hasn't got much longer to live.
It's a very beautiful painting.
The right hand side of the painting is more abstract.
But certainly, the left-hand side, you know, the figure returns and he
actually is painting himself here, in this curious rectangle.
Some people see the rectangle not as a mirror, not as a doorway, but as a coffin.
So, I think there is that kind of resonance.
Certainly in his mind's eye, he is moving away into another place.
And the whole kind of Rhondda is almost becoming an encapsulated bubble.
And we have this 360 degrees of sky round the edge.
This is almost Planet Rhondda.
In the 1950s, radical ideas in modern art had their advocates in Wales.
The 56 Group, founded in 1956, were excited by the latest abstract art,
and their exhibitions often stirred up controversy.
Their most famous member was Arthur Giardelli, who created fantastic
collages, inspired by the sea shore near his Pembrokeshire home.
But if his subject matter was Welsh,
he took inspiration from the new European art.
It was not dissatisfaction with representational art, showing
trees and cows in my pictures, that led me eventually to picking bits of wood out of a heap of old wreckage.
I went to Holland, lecturing on British painting, and had the chance to see a lot of work of painters
like Mondrian, a great innovator in abstract painting, using such simple forms as squares and rectangles.
But others retained a more traditional perspective.
Will Roberts, who'd studied with Josef Herman, painted the
dignity of people working on the land around his home in Neath.
There's no single style to Welsh art in the 1940s and 1950s.
Right across Wales, artists were painting their own people and places, in their own way.
John Elwyn was born in Cardiganshire.
For much of his life, he taught in England.
But he still managed to create an evocative sense of the Wales that he grew up in.
Someone who knew John Elwyn is the head of Aberystwyth's School of Art, Robert Meyrick.
He showed me his private collection of Elwyn's paintings.
John Elwyn produced landscapes that seemed to me to be
as lovely and as accurate an image of Wales as is possible to imagine.
But he painted these living away from Wales?
Yes. All his paintings are based upon his recollections of Wales, sketchbook drawings.
I would often visit him at weekends down in Winchester,
leave here on the most miserable wet November evenings,
arrive about 9 o'clock,
and be surrounded by these paintings in his studio.
And I'd say, that's not the Wales that I know, you should have seen it when I left.
He said, oh, there's enough misery and greyness in this world without me adding to it!
This is a fascinating painting - the top half contains,
if you like, all of the iconography that we're interested in in Wales.
You've got a school, a chapel, you've got these little houses clustered together.
The whole of the bottom half is this extraordinary field. Did he ever talk about this painting to you?
Yes. He would often paint and see what suggested itself.
And it was about this lovely sort of contrast between all these subtle
greys and pinks and pale yellows, and this very vibrant orange and yellow.
Now here, we've got two church deacons, or something.
I find this a more idealised picture of an imagined Wales
than the paintings of the farms and the hillsides.
Well, it is, because actually, he's painting Wales here of the 1920s when he was a child.
And I think it's done with great sincerity.
But it's the attention to detail, you know, whether you had a red strip
on the top of the binding of your Bible, or whether you had a gold one.
I think John Elwyn's paintings are instantly identifiable for the way in which he applies paint.
He's a very painterly painter, despite their representation.
You know, they're not entirely about the process of mark-making.
But also adventurous in his use of colour.
Artists often explore with great intensity their creative relationship with their environment.
The last two artists in this programme both did that.
Kyffin Williams in the mountains of Snowdonia, and Brenda Chamberlain on the island of Bardsey.
Brenda Chamberlain was a poet as well as a painter and printmaker.
A rare woman artist of this period, in the late 1940s,
she moved to Bardsey Island on the tip of the Llyn Peninsula.
It's not easy to reach now, but in those days, it was about as remote as you could get in Wales.
Full of years and seasoned like a salt timber,
the island fisherman has come to terms with death.
His crabbed fingers are afire with phosphorus.
From the night sea he fishes for bright armoured herring.
The National Library in Aberystwyth holds a large collection of Brenda Chamberlain's work.
I went there to meet Chamberlain expert, Jill Piercy.
Jill, what year did Brenda move to Bardsey?
Well, after a day trip in, I think it was 45, she moved in 1946.
And stayed there until 1962.
She lived very frugally,
but quite often she was very low on food.
If she ran out of canvases, she'd paint on newspaper.
And there's one painting I saw which was the hardboard on the side of the sink, that she painted on.
Nothing else to paint on, she had to paint.
These are some of the drawings that she did in Bardsey?
Yes. Yes. And in fact, these were used in her book, Tide Race.
And she's drawing shells and fish, the people, presumably, who were on the island?
Yes, that'll be one of the children on the island.
The shape of the faces that she tended to draw were all very
similar, very elongated, with these almond eyes.
There were very few artists, male or female, who were able to survive just by their work.
And particularly, there were very few female contemporaries at that time, and very few galleries.
So you really had to fight to get your work out there.
Brenda Chamberlain was always a restless figure, who lived on
a Greek island before coming back to North Wales, where she died in 1971.
But for some artists, they discover their ideal landscape, and spend their lives exploring it.
One of those was Kyffin Williams, and the place that inspired him was the uplands of North Wales.
Permanence of the mountains, the weight of the mountains,
the light of the mountains and the shapes of the mountains.
As this light,
light the other side of the ridges, the darkness of the hill against the bright sky and the bustling clouds.
And the lines of the walls and the lines of the ridges.
This is always excitement.
I suppose one of the reasons why I paint is for excitement.
Kyffin Williams was born on Anglesey in 1918.
A doctor suggested he took up painting as a therapy for his epilepsy.
He spent the next 60 years painting this landscape and the people who live and work in it.
He became the most famous Welsh artist of his generation.
At the gallery on Anglesey, dedicated to the artist's work,
John Smith, who knew Kyffin, described his working methods.
This was one of his favourite locations.
This is where he chose to do this pencil drawing,
with some watercolour in it, as a preparation for a larger painting.
It is. You can see it's been done very quickly, in a very bold manner.
It probably took a few minutes, and then he would take it back to
the studio, or even to the car, and block some of the colours in, these subtle colours.
The dark tones. Just to give it body and form.
It's a rock-solid technique, though, isn't it?
You can see straight away, this is the imprint of a great draughtsman.
Well, his background was in draughtsmanship, you know,
the companies he worked for, land agents and estate agents.
And he knew the structure of buildings.
And this was a preparation, of course, for this painting?
John, this couldn't be anything other than a Kyffin Williams, could it?
It's a signature painting, isn't it?
Well, it's a bold statement.
It's iconic, isn't it?
The way the paint has been put on, this black lining which he's
picked up from the drawing which we've just seen there.
This is a very special technique, of course. You've got
a palette knife being used, very thick colour, being put on very, very quickly.
But incredibly skilfully.
Thick paint is delightful to use.
And I like that paint, and I like drawing with the brush into thick, palette knife paint.
It pleases me. It may not please other people, but it pleases me, and that's the important thing.
I enjoy it.
And the strong contrast produced by a knife, using some ivory black and
yellow ochre against some bright, light, flake white sky or something, to me, it is satisfying.
He liked to get the paint out and mix it very, very quickly.
Not completely, sometimes.
And take it up on the palette knife and put it on, almost like butter, what they call impasto.
He became very, very keen on this technique.
The main reason was, it gave this lovely, sculptural effect.
We see all these impasto areas here.
And it gave a dynamic to it, it was almost like a sculpture.
The main emphasis was to develop a style of his own.
The old adage that once you've seen one Kyffin, you've seen them all, is absolute rubbish.
Painters like Kyffin Williams and many others established
a popular tradition of Welsh art concerned mainly with landscape.
In our final programme, we'll be looking at the end of the 20th century, when some artists
broke with painting and sculpture to challenge the very notion of art itself.
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