Radical by Tradition: Cardiff and Contemporary Art

The UK's largest international art prize, Artes Mundi, draws to a close this February in Cardiff. As we celebrate the announcement that video artist John Akomfrah has won this year's prize, for his work exploring 400 years of human migration: let's take a look back at Cardiff's long tradition of celebrating radical and thought-provoking art.

The Davies Sisters - Collecting Light

Gwendolene Davies and Mary Davies were two Methodist sisters who collected cutting-edge art at the beginning of the 20th century. The artworks they bought with their coal-boom wealth are now considered quite respectable: lillies by Monet, Venetian seascapes, open-air studies of the French middle class. It wasn't always so: in 1874, popular journalists described the Impressionists' method as: "Smear a panel with grey, plonk some black and yellow lines across it, and the enlightened few, the visionaries, exclaim: Isn't that ... perfect ..?".

As some of the earliest UK patrons for the Impressionists, the sisters donated these works to the nation between 1951-63 - creating a huge boost for the national collection, displayed today in National Museum Cardiff.

In addition to the Impressionists, you can now visit works by artists who, at the turn of the 20th century, responded to the impending crisis in Europe. Both Gwendoline and Mary opened the doors of their home to artists, such as those fleeing the German invasion of Belgium in 1914. The museum, in turn, collected works by David Jones, Paul Nash and many others who had taken part in campaigns during the two World Wars that were to follow.


Charing Cross Bridge, Claude Monet, 1902

Wales Tomorrow - The Future of Art (in 1969)

By the time the Impressionists had passed into quiet respectability, artists in the UK emerged from the post-war period eager to experiment with new ways of working - performances, happenings and pop art.

Some of the earliest happenings in the UK took place in Swansea, under the care of young performance artist Ivor Davies - who, at 80, held a spectacular show at National Museum Cardiff last year. He also holds the unusual honour of being the first artist to use explosives in an artwork, as he often included film, fire and explosions in his work.

The Reardon Smith Theatre at the Museum hosted the first even 'happening' in Wales, as well as intervenions by international artists. The legendary Yoko Ono didn't attend her performance piece in person, preferring instead to send a cardboard cutout of herslf to Cardiff, by taxi.

National Museum Cardiff captured this new, rebellious spirit by embracing artists using new materials - such as inflatable vinyl, recycled waste and perspex - in its show 'Cymru Yfory', held in 1969. Artists were invited to imagine the 'Wales of Tomorrow' - a Wales with a bright future, booming industry and plenty of go-go boots.


A Home for Contemporary Art

National Museum Cardiff's commitment to showing art from the 'here and now' continues: The Colwinston Gallery's exhibitions are varied and showcase the work of artists responding to the world around them today. It has recently been home to a golden, 12' high self-destructing loudspeaker; an installation of mosses grown in the museum's research herbarium; Welsh landscapes inspired by Allan Ginsberg's famous acid trip in the Welsh hills; and most recently, arresting contemporary portraits of people from Aberfan, taken by Shimon Attie to mark the anniversary of the disaster.

Curators maintain the tradition of radical collecting and display, encouraging visitors to smash a ceramic display in 'Fragile?', and even joining in on the cowbell during Ivor Davies' playful performance art.

Artes Mundi has played a part in keeping the museum's link to social activism alive. The competition bring artists from all over the world to Cardiff - and encourages us to view global issues through the eyes of contemporary practitioners.

It is art that responds to the world around us, and asks questions about the 'status quo'. The national collection, displayed alongside, reminds us that even Monet's waterlilies was considered unusual, transgressive and rebellious, once. Hear more about free events and exhibitions at the museum by keeping in touch with their monthly newsletter.

Through the duration of the show, friendly gallery guides will be available to make the show as accessible as possible - and this year, a brand new programme of events for adults will be held for free at National Museum Cardiff. Visit the show between 21 October and February 15th - and find out more about contemporary art near you through Arts Council Wales.

You can see the Artes Mundi entries at National Museum Cardiff and Chapter Arts Centre. For the latest from Artes Mundi, sign up to receive their e-newsletter.


Visitors breaking tiles in 'Fragile' at National Museum Cardiff

Comments (2)

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Sara Huws Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales Staff
13 December 2017, 16:13
Hi there Graeme

Thanks for your enquiry. Sounds like an interesting find! I'm going to put you in touch with one of our curators via email so that you can send them a picture.

Best wishes,

Digital Team
Graeme Moore
7 December 2017, 09:49


Splitting stones in my garden in Argoed, nr.Blackwood, in the Sirhowy Valley, I have uncovered a fossil 7cm long. I can't tell whether it is a rolled leaf or the torso of an amphibian.

Can I send you a photo for identification? Or should I bring it to one of your public events?

Kind Regards

Graeme Moore