NWR Issue 71

Words and Pictures

Just over ten years ago, Planet Books published an intriguing and lavishly illustrated book, Words with Pictures: Welsh images and images of Wales in the popular press 1640-1860, by Peter Lord. This fascinating exploration of over two centuries of popular art was not Lord's first book, nor would it be his last: previous publications included works on Francis Crawshay and Hugh Hughes, as well as his highly influential pamphlet, The Aesthetics of Relevance. He has since gone on to produce several monographs on Welsh visual art, three of which - Medieval Vision, Industrial Society and Imaging the Nation - were published as an all encompassing trilogy. Taking Lord's work as a whole, it is evident that he has single-handedly restored the history of Welsh art to the nation; his is a phenomenal body of work.

A proper recognition of the extent and reach of Lord's often fiery and passionately engaged contribution, however, has yet to be made. Perhaps, obsessed as Wales has become post-devolution with civic identity and its various rather staid badges and motifs, Lord's unflinchingly confrontational pronouncements on the approach of Welsh institutions such as the National Museum to the 'keeping' of Welsh art have made him seem something of a cultural thorn in the Establishment's side rather than a visionary.

And yet visionary he is: not only has Lord given the general reader an understanding of the historical development of Welsh visual art, he has also offered artists themselves an insight into the genres, forms and traditions from within which they develop and practise their work today. Although not all agree with his perspective - the main bone of contention being his overriding interest in the cultural and historical significance of a work as much as its aesthetic value - many have clearly been encouraged, or at least provoked, to develop their own critical approaches to the notion of a specifically Welsh artistic identity. While Lord is the inspired 'excavator' of Welsh art history, others, most obviously artist Iwan Bala, can be seen as radical 'curators' and exponents of current movements and trends. Bala has proposed what he sees as a uniquely Welsh form of 'custodial aesthetics': an approach to practising art that engages both with international trends and with deeply-rooted Welsh symbols and ciphers. Such a confluence of the international and the local can be seen in Bala's own work - in his witty, post-modern take on the Welsh costume, for example, or in his re-mappings of the 'island' of Wales as a distinct and independent entity.

To emphasise the notion of words with, or and, pictures is not simply to raise the issue of writing about art: it is also to consider the ways in which words and images intersect on the canvas itself. Numerous artists based in Wales work with words as the textural 'matter' of their work: Mary Lloyd Jones and Ogwyn Davies, two of rural Ceredigion's most inspired and creative visual artists, for example, repeatedly draw upon the political power of the written word. Mary Lloyd Jones has created her own unique 'custodial' cultural vocabulary by superimposing Ogham scripts on her landscapes in order to re-connect contemporary Wales with its ancient Celtic past. Neale Howells and Sue Williams, on the other hand, use text to sharpen the necessarily provocative aggression of their politically marginal stances. Sue Williams, for example, whose work is profiled by Zoë Brigley in this issue, is concerned primarily with the unsettling inequities of heterosexual relationships. Many of her images show how what has become a commonplace in feminist art - the deliberate subversion of the 'male gaze' - can be revisited in a post-colonial, supposedly post-feminist, context.

Conversely, the Anglo-Welsh literary canon of the last century is peopled by many significant writers who were also artists, such as Margiad Evans, whose masterly novella Country Dance (1932) has just been brought back into print in the Library of Wales series. Evans's contemporaries Brenda Chamberlain and Lynette Roberts also frequently illustrated their own literary work, and both were involved in the production of one of the most interesting art/word collaborations of the last century, the now highly sought-after Caseg Broadsheets. Throughout the twentieth century, significant writers were inspired by artists, and vice versa - think of R. S. Thomas's ekphrastic poems, for example, or, on a more intimate level, his artistic as well as his personal relationship with his wife, Royal Academy artist M. E. Eldridge. This close connection between word and image is one that persists today in the work of poets such as Paul Henry, Nigel Jenkins, Richard Gwyn and poet/sculptor John Davies.

In fact, the arts scene in Wales now encompasses a whole range of work which falls somewhere between the literary and the visual, such as performance poetry; concrete poetry; performance that crosses over into the field of visual installation and vice versa, and even art criticism that self-consciously flouts generic boundaries and conventions, staging its own interdisciplinary approach as a 'performance on paper' (Jeni Williams, ed., Sideways Glances, Parthian). It is in this context that this issue of New Welsh Review offers a series of pieces on word and image that deliberately come at the theme from something of a tangent. Together, they indicate the need to broaden our notions of 'literature' and the 'visual arts' to include an eclectic range of work in different disciplines and genres, and suggest new ways of thinking about the connections between words and pictures.

Francesca Rhydderch will be on maternity leave until the autumn. Issues 72, 73 and 74 will be edited by three specially-commissioned guest editors: Kathryn Gray, Tristan Hughes and Patrick McGuinness. Please direct all editorial enquiries to Siobhan Maderson, New Welsh Review's Editorial Manager.


previous editorial: The Problem with Poetry
next editorial: Land of the Free?


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