BLOG Claire Pickard

NWR Issue 112

Crossing Borders

The ‘Crossing Borders’ conference took place at Machynlleth’s Museum of Modern Art on 5 November 2016.

The scheduling of ‘Crossing Borders’, – the Museum of Modern Art’s one-day conference on art and literature, accompanying its new exhibition, ‘Four painters in Raymond Williams’ Border Country’ – could hardly have been more timely. The nature of Williams’ work made it inevitable that themes of identity and community, and of the relationship between Welshness and Britishness, would dominate such an event. Yet, in the aftermath of the Brexit vote any discussion of such ideas feels particularly charged and pertinent. As the day unfolded, and speaker after speaker reverted to such topics, an unofficial theme for the conference began to emerge – that of the continued and unmistakable relevance of Border Country.

The opening paper, by the exhibition’s curator Dr Peter Wakelin, introduced the work of the featured artists Joan Baker, Charles Burton, John Elwyn and Bert Isaac. It also explored the engagement of Border Country with life in South Wales between the 1930s and the 1950s. As Wakelin made clear, the paintings in the exhibition were selected not simply for their visual representation of the region Williams’ explored in his novel, but for their interrogation of some of the key ideas of that novel, particularly the nature of community and its relationship to the self. Building upon this introduction, Professor Daniel Williams considered the ways in which the four artists explored a related concept in Williams’ work, that of culture. On a basic level, the fact that their paintings depict largely working class lives underlines Williams’ assertion that ‘culture is ordinary’ – a form of shared meaning and communication. However, the variety of communities on display in the works also reminds us of the complex dynamics, such as those between urban and rural, pluralism and commonality, from which culture is forged.

Clare Davies’ paper on the differing approaches of T S Eliot and Raymond Williams to ‘satellite cultures’ extended such ideas, challenging the assumption that a hierarchical relationship between a dominant identity and its ‘constellation’ of subsidiary cultures is necessarily detrimental to the latter. Whilst such a system is clearly value laden, it also acknowledges the worth, indeed necessity, of the ‘satellite’ forms. The danger of an emphasis on a common culture, as explored by Williams in his critical work, is that it can lead to the assimilation, even eradication, of difference. For Davies, Williams’ fictional work provided a counter to such assimilation through its exploration of Welsh identity.

Focussing on the visual expressions of such identity, Peter Lord demonstrated its range and complexity in his paper investigating, ‘lines of communication in Welsh painting from the ’30s to the ’50s’. Exploring an earlier historical context, Dr Mary-Ann Constantine’s consideration of travel and fiction writing in Romantic-era Wales foregrounded the concepts of both the internalized boundary of gender and the invisible boundaries that exist on a working landscape. Such discussion elaborated on another idea that recurred throughout the conference – the relationship between those who inhabit a landscape and those who simply view it as a tabula rasa upon which to project their own preconceptions and desires. Daniel Gerke, in his consideration of Raymond Williams and realism, underlined the tension between observation of and participation within an environment. For Gerke, realism, in both Williams’ writing and in the visual art of the exhibition, was not merely a means of representation – it was an assertion of the existence and importance of the community being rendered. By contrast, in possibly the most unexpected paper of the conference, Dr Luke Thurston offered a reading of Border Country as a ghost story, capable of disrupting the very concepts of home and self.

The conference drew to a close with a discussion of borders in work by writers John Barnie and Jon Gower, and artist Marged Pendrell. This was chaired by Mary-Ann Constantine. Once again, the topic of Brexit arose. Border Country, with its exploration of the balance of factors that contribute to identity, has found a new context in which to be read.

Claire Pickard is a writer and critic based north of Aberystwyth.


previous blog: John Macfarlane’s exhibition
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