A missed opportunity

Huw David Jones reports on the newly refurbished galleries at the National Museum Cardiff

This week the National Museum Cardiff opens seven new galleries of Impressionist and Modernist art. The new galleries, which centre on the celebrated collection of the Davies sisters, form part of a six year refurbishment programme sponsored by the Welsh Government and other public and private benefactors.  This will eventually lead to the creation of a National Museum of Art for Wales by September 2011. But behind the hype surrounding the opening of the new galleries, how much has really changed at the National Museum Cardiff?

The Impressionist and Modernist galleries have been completely refurbished and redisplayed for the first time since their completion in 1993. Popular favourites such as Renoir’s La Parisienne and Rodin’s The Kiss can still be seen alongside newly acquired works, such as Picasso’s Still Life with Poron, and rediscovered gems from the museum’s vaults.  The latter includes work by forgotten women artists from Wales such as Gwen Williams (1870-1955), about whom little is known, and Edith Downing (1957-1931), a sculptor and suffragette from Cardiff.

The new galleries, which broadly trace the development of Modernism in both a British and French context, are grouped into seven themes:

  • Art after Cezanne: the ‘Primitive’ and the Modern.
  • British Art around 1900: looking to France.
  • French Art of the 19th Century.
  • French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.
  • Goscombe John and the ‘New Sculpture’.
  • Modern Art from 1930: Surrealism and Neo-Romanticism.
  • Who were the Davies sisters?

There is also a special ‘Artist in Focus’ gallery which currently features work by the Surrealist painter Merlyn Evans, who was born in Cardiff in 1910. This temporary exhibition space will later showcase work by other Modernist artists connected with Wales, including Augustus John, Graham Sutherland, John Piper and David Jones.

The new galleries of Impressionist and Modernist art feature some superb works of art and will undoubtedly bring delight and pleasure to countless visitors.  But at the same time this feels like a missed opportunity on the part of the museum to truly change the way it presents the national art collection to the public.

Art historian Peter Lord attacked the National Museum in The Aesthetics of Relevance (1992) for basing its collection and display policy on what he called ‘the high art critique’, an approach which determined the value of artist in terms of their contribution to the Welsh high art tradition. Lord argued that the high art critique damaged perceptions of Wales’s own visual culture in two ways.  Firstly, it devalued, and thus excluded from display, the work of Welsh artisan painters like Hugh Hughes or William Roos who were seen as peripheral to the development of Western high art.  And secondly, for those Welsh artists who did form part of aesthetic mainstream, such as Ceri Richards, David Jones or Augustus John, it obscured the full significance of their work in relation to Wales.

Against the conservative high art critique employed at the National Museum Cardiff, Lord developed a new methodology which explored image-making within the context of Welsh history.  The fruits of this approach, which was inspired by the ‘new’ art history of the 1980s and ‘90s, was revealed in three widely acclaimed books on the Visual Culture of Wales (1998-2004), as well as exhibitions on figures like the Neath-based collector Winifred Coombe Tennant. Lord’s research not only revealed forgotten images of the Welsh, but also provided new insights into the work of established artists from Wales and beyond.

The National Museum Cardiff has slowly begun to respond to this radical reassessment of the visual culture of Wales. In 1998 it created a specific ‘Art in Wales’ Gallery and more recently it opened galleries on Art in Wales (1500-1700), Faces from Wales (1800-2000), Welsh artists in the 18th Century and Power of the Welsh Landscape as part of the redevelopment of its East Wing.  Plans are also in place for a new set of galleries which will focus on the art of post-war Wales.

But the point is not about how much Welsh art is on show, but how whole collection, including images made outside Wales, could be shown differently.  The seven new galleries of Impressionist and Modernist art are still based on the old, conservative high art critique. They take visitors on a journey through the mainstream development of Western high art, highlighting the contribution of one or two Welsh artists along the way. Yet this approach obscures the full significance of the collection within the context of Welsh history.

The new galleries of Impressionist and Modernist art could, for example, have tried to reveal how attitudes towards patronage and taste have changed in Wales since the National Museum was created a century ago.  They could have said more about the links between patronage and Wales’s industrial past.  They could have reflected on the context in which certain paintings or sculptures were acquired for the museum or how their meaning has changed in Wales over time.

The curatorial staff at the National Museum Cardiff are certainly aware of these issues. In 2007 the museum organised the exhibition Industry to Impressionism: what two sisters did for Wales, which presented the collection of Margaret and Gwendoline Davies, granddaughters of the Welsh coalowner David Davies, as a product of the social and political context in which the two sisters lived. The museum’s new section on the Davies sisters, however, only occupies a small passageway, tucked away at the back of one of the main galleries.

The National Museum Cardiff is understandably expected to conform to demands from the public, the international art world and its government sponsors about its role as a national art gallery.  It also has to deal with the constraints of space, storage facilities, staffing levels and funding. But with the opportunities to tell multiple narratives through the use of digital technology, is it not possible for the museum to offer a range of interpretations of its collection rather than simply seeing everything through the lens of the old high art critique?

The high art critique not only devalues Welsh art, it also obscures our ability to see how the national art collection relates to broader history of Wales of which it is part.

Huw David Jones is an intern with the IWA

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