You cannot escape this place

Jonathan Brooks-Jones looks at the new galleries opened by National Museum Wales in Cathays Park

Six new art galleries are providing more space and light to display National Museum Wales’ collection of Welsh and international art from the 16th century to the present day. The new galleries at the Museum’s Cardiff headquarters, have taken two years to complete at a cost of £6.5 million. Until now just one gallery was allocated for modern and contemporary work, and only a small selection could be shown.

Selections for the new exhibition have been made by the Museum’s curatorial team who have worked closely with some of the artists to ensure the best pieces to represent their practise have been chosen. They have also invited artists to rework existing pieces, such as Carwyn Evans’ Unlliw, which was originally shown in 2002 and gained fame at the 2003 Eisteddfod in Meifod. Taking it’s name from the Welsh proverb Adar o’r unlliw, ehedant i’r unlle (‘Birds of a feather flock together’), it is an installation of 6,500 cardboard bird boxes. They were put together in response to Ceredigion County Council’s controversial plan to build 6,500 new homes in the county. Piled up in the Welsh landscapes gallery, the boxes invite viewers to make a judgement about the impact of planning policies on the community.

The development is also providing new space for contemporary artists to exhibit new pieces. It kicks off, in the sixth of the new galleries, with a sculpture by Richard Long, entitled Blaenau Ffestiniog Circle, made up of large, jagged chunks of slate from Blaenau Ffestiniog, arranged in a circle on the floor.

The opening exhibition, ‘I cannot escape this place’ features around 100 pieces from the Museum’s permanent collection alongside works on loan and new acquisitions by the Derek Williams Trust. The current exhibitions focus on themes such as Art and the Body since 1950, which explores how artists have used the body to express the anxiety and vulnerability of Wales and the UK in the wake of the Second World War. Another gallery, entitled Place, Trace and Identity: Art since the 1960s looks at progressive forms of art, including video and performance art.

The new galleries give prominence to Welsh art, but the curators have avoided putting on a static display of ‘highlights’ from the 20th Century. Instead, they have woven Welsh-based art into different contexts, which explore its relation to the international contemporary art world. For example, the People, Politics and Paint: Art in Post-war Wales gallery features a number of works by European artists who fled to Wales to escape persecution, such as Josef Herman and Martin Bloch. These works reflect the artists’ impressions of the landscapes and communities they found themselves in, such as the south Wales coalfields. Elsewhere, a number of pieces question and ridicule old Welsh stereotypes, such as Bedwyr Williams’ Bard Attitude, which describes Thomas Gray’s romantic vision of the Bard as “a cursing muppet fiddling with a harp on a rock”.

The exhibitions display Welsh art alongside the giants of 20th Century art, such as David Hockney, Francis Bacon, and the recently departed Lucian Freud. They also show the way Welsh artists link with the international avant-garde. For example, there is a display about Ifor Davies’ performance piece about the Welsh language at the Swansea Eisteddfod in the 1960s. While, on the one hand this work is driven by a Welsh interest, on the other the artist is employing techniques more associated with the pan-European avant-garde. Many of the pieces are previous Welsh representatives at the Venice Biennale, which adds to the depiction of Wales-based art engaging with contemporary, international art.

There has been a concerted effort to incorporate multiple layers of interpretation other than that of the curators. Visitors have an appetite for more information about the works on display. The Museum’s response has been to install iPads in the centre of the new galleries, where users can access videos that illuminate a selection of featured artists or works. The videos contain interviews with friends of the artists, the artists themselves, curatorial staff at the museum and other experts as well as archive footage, for example depicting mining communities in the south Wales Valleys when discussing Josef Herman’s work. Not only does this help to inform visitors about the works they are viewing, it also adds to the layers of interpretation about the works on display. Later this year this will be supplemented by a new educational space that will open directly onto the galleries, enhancing school children’s opportunities to engage with and enjoy art.

The new galleries will change the exhibitions every 12 to 24 months. In October two new exhibitions will be installed, one exploring the work of Joseph Beuys and another in the form of a collection of portraits of the Queen, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery in London. In early 2013, following the completion of Artes Mundi exhibition which will take over the entire space, the six galleries will be renewed with a focus on Modernism and Abstraction. In between times, individual galleries and displays will also change, meaning regular visitors will not have to wait long to see something new.

Jonathan Brooks-Jones is Sub-Editor for

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