Kim Howells explores Welsh art in the 1960s when old the rules were thrown out. Featuring the art of Ivor Davis, Tery Setch, Iwan Bala, Mary Lloyd Jones and Sue Williams.
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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
-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.'
Welsh art from the 1960s on, like Wales itself, was fast-changing.
There were new fashions, new music, and new art.
There were protests in the street, and there was revolution in the air.
And art was no longer confined to the walls of art galleries.
It came onto the streets. It could be anywhere.
Pop artists like the American Andy Warhol
took the world of consumer society as their subject.
And in Britain, painters like Peter Blake were also making art
inspired by the world of music and movies.
Ifor Davies was born in Treharris in 1935.
He's now one of the grand old men of Welsh art,
but in the 1960s, he was a real revolutionary,
making works of art that were literally explosive.
I have always wanted to go to the extreme of whatever I'm doing.
Go to the uttermost point to explore it.
I think I was the first in Britain, maybe in Europe, to use
explosives as the essential part of a work of art.
This was a human figure
with explosives attached to each of the organs.
The sight of this transformation of materials, disintegrating -
there was an element which you could almost call beauty in that.
I think it had a lot to do with the element of destruction
in the world.
Wars, and that element of destruction in society.
For much of his early career, Ifor was based away from Wales,
but in the late 1970s,
he returned home to teach in Newport.
His work increasingly took on Welsh history and politics
as its subject matter.
At one time, you daren't talk about Welsh art.
It was infra dig. You weren't supposed to
associate art with Wales.
Anything Welsh was stigmatised.
My aim is really to have different ideas coming along
one after the other, different conceptions of reality.
Different expressions of myself.
But a lot of people have said to me, it looks all done by different people.
Trying to be a bit cheeky, you know. And I quite like that idea.
In 2010, Ifor created a mosaic of St David for Westminster Cathedral,
which was unveiled during the papal visit.
Quite a journey for a '60s art rebel.
It took me a long time to work on that.
I'd work during the day, a bit like St David himself did,
and then do some research in the night.
I did the design for it, for this mosaic. Life-size.
The figure of St David, standing on the mound
which rose up under his feet at Brefi, which became Llanddewi Brefi.
I've had one or two quite scathing remarks.
People being quite witty about it.
One said that he looked like someone from the '70s
with a fashionable haircut.
Like Ifor Davies, other artists in the 1960s and 1970s
made work that criticised consumer society.
Terry Setch first came to Cardiff in the 1960s.
The subject matter for his paintings at first seems pretty uninspiring -
all of the rubbish that washes up on the shore line of Cardiff Bay.
But out of this detritus, he's created a series of powerful works
that highlight our disposable society,
and which have a strange beauty all of their own.
For over 40 years now, Terry Setch has explored
the shore line near Penarth like an artistic beachcomber.
Once I saw that coastline, I had to get down onto that beach
and start walking, and head up towards Lavernock.
And that was an exciting thing.
I was fixed
and it almost became a sublime place.
The two islands that change,
disappear in the mist,
and then they appear again.
Walking towards Sully, and lo and behold, there's a car.
It's on the beach. You look up, you can see where it's coming from.
And I thought, well, joy riders, tipping them over and crashing down.
The conjuncture of these two opposite things which people have
very strong opinions about - one is nice, one is nasty.
One is violent, and yet the other one's violent,
but it's violent in a different way. Nature.
One of the themes that you've been exploring is the whole question of pollution
and what it does to us and what it does to our landscape and why we do it.
When did you become interested in this?
Oil came into it, in a very big way.
I think the Torrey Canyon went down in '68,
something like that.
-In the Scilly Isles.
-Yes. And, there was this pollution on beaches.
This oil business. And I think it's been growing and growing and growing.
It seems fundamentally one of the things which is constantly
making all manner of greed and pollution.
So I made a very large painting which was called
Once Upon A Time There Was Oil,
which is the picture the Tate bought.
-Yes. It may not be the most significant painting,
it's one of the largest paintings in the collection.
They've got one of the most significant titles, if you like,
because in fact, it's a thing that's gone on
for decades and decades and it's still going on.
There's a maturity to Terry Setch's work
that's born of decades of experiment and study.
Another member of the '60s generation who shares that depth of experience
is Wales's most internationally acclaimed artist,
the sculptor David Nash.
He came to Blaenau Ffestiniog in the late 1960s.
And for four decades, this place, its landscape, its people,
have had an influence on his work.
Coming to Blaenau Ffestiniog was a turning point in David's work,
and showed him the potential of using natural materials close to hand.
I've known this area since I was three.
My grandparents have lived nearly all their lives in north Wales.
The weather is a very strong phenomenon here.
And it draws you much more into natural cycles,
so I started hitting the wood with an axe, fresh, unseasoned wood,
which splits much more easily. And it has behaviour -
as it tries out, it shrinks and warps and bends and does something.
It goes on forming itself after I've stopped carving.
In 2010, there was a major retrospective of David Nash's work
at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
It was a while before I found my work, which is really
those nine cracked balls which are at the sculpture park.
When they were making the playing field, opposite here,
there was a small ash was cut down and I got it and I cut with an axe,
nine lumps and they just split open on their own.
This was a revelation to me, because I was still making these coloured things,
but I just was aware that I needed to enter into the material I was using more,
and that was really my first real step.
It was like going back to kindergarten,
and really, in a way, I stayed there because there's so much to do.
David Nash also works in the landscape itself.
His ash dome is a living work of art,
made out of a circle of ash trees,
which David planted in the late 1970s.
He keeps its location secret and for 40 years
he's carefully trained and pruned the trees to form a dome.
The North Wales landscape also had a profound effect
on the painter Peter Prendergast.
Although he was born near Caerphilly,
he lived just outside Bethesda for many years until his death in 2007.
The year before he died, he was filmed near South Stack in Anglesey,
sketching for what would be his last epic painting, Close To Ellin's Twr.
The way the work has developed is by simply observing and trying to
understand what's happening, visually and physically,
and then trying to invent a way of describing what I can see.
I prefer really to compare what I'm doing with what Turner did,
than to compare it with somebody
who's just painting souvenirs of the scene.
If I wanted to make something which was realistic,
then I'd come and just take photographs.
Homecomings are a common theme
in Welsh art of the late 20th century.
If artists in earlier decades felt they had to work away in London,
more recently many have been drawn back to Wales.
Kevin Sinnott was born in Sarn near Bridgend.
He studied at the Royal College of Art and worked successfully
in London before returning to South Wales 15 years ago.
He's now one of Wales's most popular artists,
with exuberant figure paintings set in the valleys near his home.
Kevin, you're one of the few painters who, for me,
actually paints what Wales is about.
It looks like Wales, it feels like Wales,
and I get the vibrancy of this landscape in your paintings.
I do like to think of them as being about the community
and about life and about the warmth
and about the characters that you see in the valleys of Wales
and the passion, rather than a miner going to work.
Of course there weren't any miners going to work
by the time I got back here anyway.
I'd rather paint a young girl flying a kite.
It's a process that is initially quite abstract,
more akin to abstract expressionism than it is to
more traditional, realistic, figurative painting, initially.
This is where the dynamism of the compositions comes from.
It comes from being immersed in the art.
One of the most popular paintings that's come out of Wales,
or anywhere, over the last 30 years
is your painting Running Away With The Hairdresser.
Where did the idea for that come from?
I did this painting of this one single guy,
just his torso, running away.
His arms are pumping against a background of terraced houses.
A very simple idea.
It's aspirational, in a way.
This guy is running away. Where to?
University, perhaps, better things.
And I did another figure,
and so it became a guy running away with a girl, or vice versa.
He could be leaving his wife to go and live around the corner.
He's not necessarily running away from his background, he's simply running away.
The title, I don't know where it came from.
She didn't have a comb in her hand.
He didn't have a hair dryer.
My brother-in-law actually left his wife for a hairdresser.
It took place in Wales.
They weren't on my mind. They definitely weren't on my mind.
I just thought "running away with the hairdresser",
it's about running away.
It's what I did, I suppose.
All the artists in this programme and for much of the series so far have been men,
but with the emergence of feminism in the 1970s, Welsh women artists
have increasingly made their presence felt.
Mary Lloyd Jones has been an artist since the 1950s,
making beautifully coloured paintings inspired by
the landscape around her Devil's Bridge birthplace.
If it wasn't for living in Wales, I think, and I suppose West Wales,
I wouldn't be painting at all, because it is
going out into the countryside and seeing all the geology.
There's such variety in Wales.
I think the landscape is the subject.
You can't get away from the lead mines, you see.
They're such a feature of this landscape.
Initially, I think the contrast of colour was what drew me.
You've got lots and lots of green, then you'll have this slab of grey.
The stone sort of sparkles in certain lights.
In the early 1970s, feminism and women's liberation swept across the whole landscape.
How did that affect you?
Well, I was very excited about all of those developments
and all those books that came out. I read them all.
I was very fired by it all.
I wanted my work to say clearly that "This is made by a woman."
That's how I got into working with the fabrics, the cloth and the dyes.
Then I thought, "I want to make a connection with the quilting,
"this largely geometric tradition, very bold, strong shapes,
"and the landscape."
And I thought if, "I can bring these two things together, that will be interesting."
By showing the landscape
or elements from the natural world in this method,
using these materials, it would appear fragile and threatened.
So feminism enabled me to make this sort of language.
There were very few women artists working at that time.
Was that an added difficulty for you?
Well, yes. I think
it's always... It's not a level playing field at all.
Although this situation has got a lot better, and I think there are a lot
of very good women artists working in Wales at this present time.
But you're always in the minority.
It was quite uncomfortable, but I thought, "Stick it out."
Another important woman artist in Wales is Sue Williams.
Arguably her powerful and challenging work
could only come from a woman's perspective.
Her large-scale paintings are full of provocative imagery,
dealing explicitly with sexuality, abuse and violence,
although often undercut with her savage wit.
Shani Rhys James is Wales's best-known female artist.
Born in Australia to a Welsh father,
she came to work in Wales in the 1980s.
She often uses her own face in her paintings,
and the results are frequently disconcerting.
Shani, the faces in your paintings are very raw faces.
Are they based on self-portraits,
or are they about a wider psychology?
Well, they are often my head,
although I don't really think of it as my head.
When you say rawness, it's trying to get past that mask, if you like,
that everybody puts up.
This whole enormous pressure that women have
to be beautiful, to be perfect,
whether their face is dropping or needs to be lifted up,
and all the thing about age that we are obsessed about.
I think what I'm really trying to do
is to show the rawness of a woman actually being a human being.
More than anybody else I know, you've got signature colours.
Are you a conscious user of a fairly limited palette?
It's the most powerful colour, red.
It's so primal.
My paintings are about contact and powerfulness
and just showing what I feel and just saying, "This is what it is.
"This is what I feel. This is what I have experienced."
Still lifes, yeah, I like doing still lifes,
but that's not what it's about. It's about a political stance.
I'm very interested in the psychology of people and the humanness
of people and not doing pretty little paintings,
but doing something that makes people question themselves.
So when you get this isolated child in the cot,
it's not a direct autobiographical rendition,
it's about a metaphor.
It's about a symbol of something, our human condition.
It's about how we treat children in this country.
What is a child? A child is a little spirit,
a spirit that's there, ready, open and receptive.
And I have a right to my existence and I'm here
and I am as much a human being as an adult.
It's really a lot to do with the innocence of a child.
Since the 1960s, questions of national identity
became important issues for some artists in Wales.
They began to explore the widely held images of Wales and Welsh stereotypes.
Some of them found inspiration in the campaigns to promote
the Welsh language and in the ideals of Welsh nationalism.
One of these artists is Iwan Bala
who combines Welsh imagery, writing and history in his work.
In Wales there was Becker, Ifor Davies,
Paul Davies, there was the writing of Peter Lord.
There were lots of things that seemed to be reaching a critical mass
about how Welsh culture could start talking about itself,
rather than being looked at or viewed from the outside.
So this idea of wanting to remake Wales.
I guess that's what I'm doing in the paintings, is Wales reappears in
different guises, because all through history that's what has happened.
You are using images of Wales, but the core image is a map of Wales.
It started off as a kind of Wales shape, like an island on the horizon.
But it was the shape that we would recognise from the map.
It's not about total patriotism, it's not about nationalism.
It's about the ideas that people form from their early life
and how do they think in certain ways about certain places?
These works relate to the times I'm living in and the things
I've come across and read and written and whatever, you know.
Gwyn Alf Williams you've caught quite a lot here.
Gwyn has used the term "remembrancer".
Are you a remembrancer or a creator?
The history of Wales is something that has to be kept alive,
in a sense, because as a minority small nation status,
it has been difficult sometimes to keep that history alive.
When you're looking forward, you make sure you're also looking back.
If we forget history then we're in trouble.
I see myself as a participant in a new Wales, in a way.
A Wales that is looking forward, that is developing
in ways that we couldn't have imagined 20 years ago.
By the end of the 20th century,
there were thousands of artists working in Wales
and dozens of galleries and arts centres,
many financed out of the public purse,
like this multi-million-pound extension to Oriel Mostyn in Llandudno.
On show at Oriel Mostyn is an exhibition by Tim Davies.
The Welsh representative at the 2011 Venice Biennale,
Tim is a conceptual artist whose art is
as much about the ideas behind the work as the images on the wall.
Tim Davies's work is often about memory
and the traces left by previous generations.
One part of the Oriel Mostyn exhibition
is called Figures in a Landscape
and is made up of dozens of old postcards
from which the people in them have been carefully removed.
We don't use postcards as much as we used to.
In their own little way, no matter how banal some comments might be,
the "wish you were here" scenario,
there's a little social comment
of that person writing this card at that moment in time.
The figures themselves,
I began to become interested in this notion of figures
parading in costume, if you like, a national costume or folk costume.
Occasionally on the back of a card it will say "typical costumes and dances".
The words in the title, particularly in this piece,
are very carefully chosen. It's very simple.
Figures in a Landscape. Where are the figures? The figures aren't there.
That's a very simple question, and one can get that.
The figures are not in the landscape. So am I looking at a landscape?
In this case, we see the reverse.
You're not. So that's a card I found
where clearly someone bought it and decided not to use it.
But by reversing the card, the figures are still in a landscape.
It almost becomes a curious, minimalist landscape.
These figures - disparate, scattered, removed and lost,
are looking for places.
So for me that just touches upon
one of our many contemporary questions about
figures in terms of identity but also figures in terms of belonging.
You know, borders.
We hear a lot about border controls, asylum seekers, refugees.
That's really where the starting point is.
I don't expect an audience necessarily to get that.
I think ambiguity is not such a bad thing.
I'm just someone who happens to be an artist
who's trying to grapple with certain questions
that I think we could ask ourselves, in terms of humanity.
I met curator Karen MacKinnon at the beginning of the series.
I caught up with her again at Oriel Mostyn
to talk about the current state of Welsh art.
I think we do produce really good artists in Wales.
There's really brilliant artists and art,
and when we show at the Venice Biennale, for instance,
I think the artists that we show there can stand alongside
any of those other artists or pavilions from anywhere in the world.
If you look at the last show that was at the Mostyn Gallery,
Mirrors And Plans, in which 25 artists from across Wales were shown,
and this is the first show in a series of shows.
I think they're going to do it every couple of years. It was incredible
because you had painting, installation, sculpture, video.
It's really, really diverse and vibrant.
Artists are just taking ideas in any kind of direction
and working in so many different ways.
There are big issues to face in terms of funding for the arts,
of course, for the whole of the country.
I think despite that, artists will continue to work and find other ways to work.
Wales will continue to have a really vibrant art scene.
The art produced in Wales in the 20th century
bears comparison with art produced anywhere in the world.
It is as rich in its inventiveness, quality and variety
as any art produced in London, New York or Paris.
What the future holds for art in Wales depends not only on the value
that we place on what's been achieved already,
but on how we judge the importance of training and supporting new generations of artists
so that they might continue to enrich our lives in a thousand different ways.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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In this final part of his exploration of Welsh art in the 20th century, Kim Howells turns to the 1960s when the old rules of art were thrown out of the window.
Ivor Davis was at the forefront of this revolution, attaching explosives to his paintings before blowing them up. Terry Setch was another artist who criticised consumer society - his large paintings inspired by the shoreline near Penarth were an early warning of our reliance on oil. Welsh identity and nationhood was another theme and is seen in different ways in the art of Iwan Bala and Tim Davies. Mary Lloyd Jones, Shani Rhys James and Sue Williams all made original, compelling work, proving that Welsh art is the equal of any in the world.