The Library’s magnificent, some say ‘block-busting’ Christopher Williams exhibition will open on 7 July and will be opened officially by the former MP, Kim Howells, on 14 July.
I guess, like many, I was more familiar with one of Christopher Williams’s paintings than I was of him.
The painting is Cymru’n Deffro (Wales Awakes). It’s of a beautiful woman rising, phoenix-like from the darkness into the light. Not a new metaphor. But it’s done its job because I’ve seen it used several times for the very purpose Williams give to it – a short hand, uplifting visual expression of the rise in Welsh national consciousness and confidence.
In his book, Gwenllian, Peter Lord places a sketch of Cymru’n Deffro, on the cover, fully aware of the instant visual hit such a striking image would instil in the public. And in many ways, Williams is the ideal man to place at the forefront of Peter Lord’s book. After all, Christopher Williams failed to gain wide acclaim from many in the art establishment in Wales – the establishment Lord criticised for having an aesthetic which was divorced from the population it was meant to serve.
As Prof Robert Meyrick, the exhibition’s curator noted, a former National Museum of Wales’s director, Cyril Fox deemed Williams’s painting lacking in ‘sufficient artistic importance to warrant the occupation of space,’ while the Museum’s Keeper of Art, John Steegman, thought them ‘empty’ and ‘deplorably bad’ – no matter how greatly they were ‘admired by the uncritical in south Wales’.
In his seminal 1992 pamphlet, The Aesthetics of Relevance, Lord maps out the intellectual and aesthetic obstacles put in place of exhibiting Welsh art. He criticises the art establishment in Wales of failing to appreciate and celebrate art from Wales which was of Wales and spoke to Wales, preferring instead to attack it or belittle it for not being of sufficient aesthetic quality.
Although Lord is appreciative of the work the National Library and National Eisteddfod has done over the decades in collecting and exhibiting Welsh art, he is critical of the broader art establishment in our country.
It’s only fitting then that one of those artists who suffered from the kind of lack of Welsh aesthetic which Lord campaigned against is given pride of place at the National Library. It’s equally fitting that the National Library, itself a magnificent manifestation in Portland stone and granite, is a tangible example of the kind of patriotic Welsh can-do attitude which was the epoch to the Cymru’n Deffro painting and a fulfillment of that desire.
In a way, the Christopher Williams Retrospective exhibition will be a homecoming for one of our lost sons.