Cardiff: Wales and the bigger picture
It is usually with some apprehension that one sets out to visit a museum that one has not seen for some years, especially if the earlier visit left a favourable impression. Will it be much the same (unlikely) or will curatorial, political and educational agendas have changed its galleries beyond recognition into a thematic maze? Will the wall labels be simply informative or be couched in a kindergarten idiom or, perhaps worse, tell us how we are to respond to a particular exhibit? Will one of the principal galleries now be devoted perhaps to a café, a shop or a video projection? When, earlier this year, the National Museum Wales in Cardiff announced the completion of six new galleries for modern and contemporary art, mixed feelings arose. Certainly it was imperative that more space was made available for the Museum’s many acquisitions of recent art (as well as its older twentieth-century holdings). But would it mean a curtailed showing of its very distinguished ceramics collection or, perhaps, an overdose of art in Wales? Such questions and considerations coloured the editorialising mind as Cathays Park, with its great white Civic Centre, came into view on a recent visit. Happily, almost from the start, anxieties were laid to rest.
The fine art collection, occupying the whole upper floor of the Edwardian building, is reached by a grand double-staircase leading up from the airy spread of the entrance hall (once presided over by a tyrannosaurus). The hang is reassuringly seemly and old-fashioned. A suite of rooms displays the Museum’s holdings of art from the Renaissance to about 1800, the paintings accompanied by a judicious selection of furniture and cased ceramics. While celebrated masterpieces are few, a visitor is detained again and again by works of considerable presence and interest. Many of these were acquired in the 1970s and 1980s, following the substantial increase in the Museum’s annual purchase grant in 1972–73. It was then that several of the Italian paintings entered the collection including, Cima’s beautifully contoured Virgin and Child (c.1500), a weirdly ingenious Aspertini, once at Holkham Hall, and Andrea Sacchi’s Hagar and Ishmael, fusing figurative intimacy with a long perspective into the wilderness.
As one reaches the eighteenth century, variously detained beforehand by, among others, Claude and Poussin, Cuyp and the Le Nains, the works come thick and fast – from Richard Wilson through Canaletto and Guardi (an exquisite new acquisition is his small painting of Palazzo Loredan seen across the Grand Canal), Batoni (a great portrait of three Grand Tourists), Reynolds and Gainsborough to the famous little view of houses in Naples by Thomas Jones. The hang is chronological, becoming increasingly dense by the time one reaches mid-nineteenth-century France. It is here that the collection becomes outstanding for its variety and focus, owing to the taste of the pioneering Davies sisters, Gwendoline and Margaret. Although their names are attached to certain acquisitions of earlier works in the Museum, it is their gifts and bequests of French art from Corot and Daumier to Monet, Rodin and Cézanne and of early twentieth-century British painting on which their reputation as great benefactors is consolidated. With their major bequests in 1951 and 1963, the transformation of the Museum was astonishing and made Cardiff a place of pilgrimage for a wider international audience. The works are much travelled and the subject of frequent loan requests but at present are well represented on the walls. A recent outcome of this popularity is a programme of return loans to Cardiff for short periods: at the moment Manet’s large and vivid ébauche of Monet and his wife in his studio boat is on loan from Stuttgart (a painting referred to in this issue by Juliet Wilson-Bareau; p.821). Here is not perhaps the place to discuss the seesaw quality of the Misses Davies’s collection; one is simply thankful for the several masterpieces within the whole.
The twentieth-century displays mostly continue the already well-established themes of French and British art and there are some telling European works from further afield to give a broader context – from Goncharova, Ernst, Magritte and Picasso – to many excellent early modern British paintings and sculpture (a notable group by Gill, Epstein and Gaudier-Brzeska and a superb Hepworth of 1955). Interspersed here are smaller displays devoted to Gwen and Augustus John and highly representative paintings by other Welsh artists such as Ceri Richards and Cedric Morris, as well as some Graham Sutherlands inspired by the Welsh landscape. The six bright rooms of more contemporary art, which constitute the latest phase in the extension and redisplay of the collections, carefully weave work by Welsh-born artists among that of more internationally known figures. Shown close by is one of the across-Britain travelling displays from the ARTIST ROOMS scheme – a somewhat dispiriting group of works by Joseph Beuys from which the old magic has all but evaporated.
The burning question for those in charge of the Museum has always centred on the balance between its representation of Welsh achievements in the arts and the bigger, international picture to be expected from a country’s leading gallery: how much of the former should be accommodated within the latter? Answers have varied over the decades; right from the earliest years international collections (of paintings, sculpture and ceramics, for example) vied with the more local initiative of building ‘a collection that defined the art of Wales’.1 The above, necessarily brief account of the Museum’s current ‘look’ indicates that the balance has been carefully weighed and should certainly satisfy the results of a public consultation from ten years ago which found in favour of showing the developing narrative of Welsh art parallel to its European context, a firmer emphasis on the contemporary and a growing partnership with museums beyond Wales. The acquisition budget, pegged for some time at £1 million per year, was dramatically halved last April but, to judge from the Museum’s history and its recent initiatives, one can be sure that its curatorial staff will enthusiastically continue to enrich its collections.
1 Quoted from the excellent introduction by Oliver Fairclough, Keeper of Art, to the new handbook to the art collection: A Companion Guide to the Welsh National Museum of Art. Edited by O. Fairclough. 176 pp. incl. 150 col. + 12 b. & w. ills. (Amgueddfa Cymru/National Museum Wales, Cardiff, 2011), £15 (PB). ISBN 978–0–7200–0613–1. A Welsh-language edition is also available.