REVIEW by Amy McCauley

NWR Issue 106


by Claudia Williams, ed Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan

It is always difficult to respond to artwork that deals with real events. Why? Partly because the weight of the events themselves must be respected, and partly because their representation inevitably involves a huge element of interpretation. Responding critically to this interpretation means separating their depiction from the events themselves, which is a truly difficult task – particularly when the events are tragic. So just how is an artist to offer a considered reply to shocking abuses of power? And how to stop anger or sentimentality from overwhelming (and undermining) the task in hand?

Tryweryn, Claudia Williams offers Williams’ artistic response to the flooding of the Tryweryn valley between 1955 and 1965. In her beautifully written introduction, Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan describes the political background to the decision, carefully locating it within the wider historical context of evictions, land-grabbing and reservoir construction in Wales.

These acts – which served the needs of English cities and provided the military with land on which to build bombs – displaced and scattered the Welsh-speaking community, destroying the local culture of the inhabitants along with their houses, farms, school, post office and chapel. As Lloyd-Morgan writes:
The drowning of the Tryweryn valley, near Bala, by Liverpool Corporation in the mid-1960s was a traumatic episode in the history of modern Wales. It left a deep scar not only in the families so cruelly uprooted but also on the wider Welsh-speaking community.
All of this despite the fact that every Welsh MP bar one voted against the parliamentary measure which facilitated the reservoir’s construction.

Depicting such events will always be problematic precisely because the lives of real people are implicated. It is a surprise, then, that Williams chooses not to respond to the specific details of place, people or event. Instead, she depicts people as archetypes involved in imaginary scenarios. She illustrates life inside the home – the conversations between families, the nightmares of couples, and the receiving of bad news. Lloyd-Morgan sees this lack of specificity as a virtue, saying: ‘The fact that the series does not represent actual places and individuals gives it a relevance beyond the Tryweryn case’. I must say I feel compelled to disagree. It is the very absence of ‘actual places and individuals’ which takes away from the pictures’ relevance, often giving them a static, one-dimensional feel. Many of the depictions feel more like exercises in composition rather than responses to a real event, with several pictures closer to ‘variations on a theme’ than fully realised images.

Black and white photographs by Geoff Charles offset Williams’ bright pastels and oils, locating her artistic response alongside stark photographic reality. It would have worked extremely well if Charles’ photographs had been spread throughout the book, in order that art converse with reality in a more dynamic manner. Certainly I would have found the depth of detail and specificity in the Geoff Charles’ photographs to be a useful ‘foil’ to the archetypal figures shown in Williams’ pastels and paintings.

Interestingly, Lloyd-Jones compares and contrasts Williams’ pictures with the Geoff Charles photographs, saying, ‘Whereas the monochrome of the photographs immediately identifies them as historical documents and thus distances us from the events, the colour draws us in to the paintings, giving them a powerful intimacy and contemporary feel, for all the old-fashioned artefacts within their décor.’

While Williams’ use of colour is indeed powerful, for me there is a sense of nostalgia and sentimentalism in the presentation of ‘the old-fashioned artefacts’. Far from feeling ‘contemporary’ as Lloyd-Morgan proposes, I would say the artist’s ‘cheerful palette’ suggests a sentimental storybook. This lends the pictures a self-conscious ‘period piece’ feel, which is odd given that Williams made the series at the beginning of the new millennium.

The most moving images are Williams’ portraits of couples in bed. The companion pieces ‘Sleepless Night’ (in pastel) and ‘The Nightmare’ (oil on canvas) are deeply sad, possessing a real sense of weight which is often missing in the rest of the images. And while the book amply illustrates Claudia Williams’ versatility as an artist who works confidently across multiple media, I remain to be convinced by the proposition these images put forward.

Amy McCauley is a freelance writer, editor and reviewer. Her poetry has appeared widely in UK magazines and anthologies, and her pamphlet, Slops, was shortlisted for the Pighog/Poetry School Pamphlet Prize 2014. She is currently working on a collection of poems drawing on the Oedipus myth.

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previous review: Footfalls in the Silence: A Memoir
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