Art research case studies

What can our art and photography collections tell us about the role of Wales in shaping and contributing to national and international artistic movements, careers, collections, networks and communities of art practice?

The art collections are among Europe’s finest. They span five hundred years of outstanding paintings, drawings, sculpture, silver, ceramics and other applied art from Wales and across the world. They include one of Europe's best collections of Impressionist art, as well as a leading collection of sculpture, centred on Rodin and the late 19th-century ‘New Sculpture’ movement. Later collections link into more recent modernist/postmodernist art movements worldwide. A major newly-acquired collection of photographs has inspired the appointment of the Museum’s first photography curator, creating new research opportunities. Our artworks and photographs contain rich and plentiful opportunities to research the many connections between symbolic and artistic content and current social and political issues, historical and cultural movements and the concerns of other disciplines.

Highlighted projects:

Gillian Ayres

For the renowned abstract expressionist artist Gillian Ayres, painting ‘is there to communicate and express our sublime state, our luminous explosion in space’. Interview-based research with the artist explored how she came to be working in Wales in the 1950s and how this nurtured a yearning to return there in her later years, when she settled in the Llŷn peninsula in the 1980s. There she found a landscape and way of life that inspired her most prolific work. The large, heavily textured, vibrant canvases of the ‘Welsh period’ have become her most recognized and critically acclaimed paintings.

The Art Fund Collecting Awards Programme: American and European photographers working in the South Wales Valleys 1950s–1980s

The Art Fund have awarded Dr Bronwen Colquhoun, Senior Curator of Photography, £65,000 to build a collection of photographs and oral histories that reflect the activities of key international photographers who worked in the South Wales Valleys between the 1950s and 1980s. This has been identified as a significant period in photography in Wales that is not represented in any Welsh collection. The rise and decline of heavy industry offered an attractive subject for American photographers including Robert Frank, Eugene Smith and Bruce Davidson. Each sought to document the lives of communities and the impact of industry on the landscape. The images were published worldwide and played a key role in situating Welsh life and culture in an international context. This New Collecting Award presents a unique opportunity to research and assemble works by American and European photographers from this period that will enable the Museum and our visitors to investigate how global visions of Welsh culture and identity have been characterised through photography.

How have the culture, practice and patronage of art in Wales been shaped by national and international influences?

Highlighted projects:

Kizuna: Japan, Wales, design

In 2012 the National Museum of Japanese History hosted the Head of Applied Art as a visiting scholar, and signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Amgueddfa Cymru. This underpinned a collaborative research project leading to the ambitious Kizuna exhibition at National Museum Cardiff in summer 2018. Drawn from Japanese national and Welsh collections, this presented narratives of historic and contemporary relationships between Wales and Japan through the perspective of Japanese art and design. Research was published in the accompanying catalogue and a peer-reviewed article on a tea ceremony collection acquired for the Museum by the pre-eminent artist-potter Bernard Leach (1887–1979).

Welsh ceramics

Studying the ceramics collections reveals the workings of the market for British ceramics in the early 19th century. For example, the well-known ceramicist, Thomas Pardoe, had an influential business network stretching from Bristol to Wales, evidenced in his ceramics work, sketchbooks, drawings, watercolours, painted textiles – all largely in the collections of Amgueddfa Cymru.

In what ways is Wales’s culture, art and design history distinctive in an international context?

David Nash

Sculpture through the Seasons (National Museum Cardiff, 3 May – 1 September 2019) is a major retrospective of the work of David Nash, the internationally important sculptor and land artist who has lived and worked in Blaenau Ffestiniog since 1967. The exhibition gives a comprehensive overview of Nash’s work from the late 1960s to the present day and uses new research to explore the ways in which location, place and an interchange between the ‘local’ and the ‘international’ have informed his practice. The exhibition is accompanied by a publication David Nash: 200 Seasons at Capel Rhiw published by Amgueddfa Cymru in English and Welsh language editions.

Exhibition — Bernd and Hilla Becher: Industrial Visions

Bernd and Hilla Becher: Industrial Visions (26 October 2019 – 1 March 2020) explores the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, two of the most influential artists of the twentieth century, It will be the first major UK retrospective of their work to date and the last exhibition that Hilla Becher initiated before her death in 2015. From the 1960s until 2007, the Bechers collaborated on a fascinating photographic project that meticulously documented industrial architecture across Europe and the US: winding towers, water towers, coal silos, blast furnaces, lime kilns, grain elevators, preparation plants, oil refineries, and the like. In 1966, following the award of a British Council Fellowship, and with the support of the National Coal Board, the Bechers arrived in Wales and set up a temporary home with their young son, Max, at a campsite near Glynneath. It provided a base for them to make an extensive series of pictures around Hirwaun, Bargoed, Treorchy, Blaenavon and several other locations in the Rhondda Valley.

Working with the external curator Dr Russell Roberts, the exhibition has been developed in direct partnership with the Becher studio and archive. It presents a unique opportunity to understand the impact of the Bechers’ work on the communities in these areas of south Wales and uncover new narratives around these now internationally famous photographs. Following new research that has been uncovered in the archive, the exhibition will reveal the depth of the Bechers’ engagement with the industrial architecture of Wales and the untold story of artistic activity that has since inspired generations of artists and photographers.

John Piper: landscapes of Wales

The Snowdon mountain range is a rugged, dramatic landscape formed of volcanic ash ‘tuffs’, deep glaciated valleys (cymoedd), high crags, moraines and cliff-ringed lakes. Formed in the Ordovician age (450 million years ago), this mountainous, rocky terrain inspired the emotionally charged paintings of the British artist John Piper (1903–1992). Piper’s powerful landscape paintings exhibit a close understanding of the geology of Snowdonia, which he studied in detail,  apturing the rock striations, jointed rock-faces and precise shape and shadows of distinctive boulders. ‘I felt then that I was seeing the mountains for the first time and seeing them as nobody had seen them before’, he said. In 2012 a joint Geology–Art project at Amgueddfa Cymru enabled our geological curator to pinpoint the exact locations of the scenes painted by Piper, with photographs from these locations exhibited alongside Piper’s paintings of them in an exhibition in 2012.

How can forms of museological self-critique be useful in challenging the power structures that inform and perpetuate traditional art histories whilst marginalizing other forms of visual culture?

Highlighted projects:

Who decides?

Throughout 2017 colleagues in Art and Learning worked with a group of ten service-users from the Wallich – a Welsh charity supporting homeless adults – to curate and organise an exhibition of new acquisitions from the Museum’s collection of modern and contemporary art. The resulting exhibition Who Decides? Making Connections with Contemporary Art (National Museum Cardiff, 28 October 2017 – 2 September 2018) transformed the participants’ attitude to art and the Museum, but also challenged the internal and largely hidden decision-making processes of the institution. Adopting self-critique as part of the organising methodology, Who Decides? proposed to be an agent of institutional change – an advocate for a more democratic and accountable Museum.