Proximity, remoteness and solitude in Welsh art

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Remoteness, I discovered in making this series, is a geographical description that must be used carefully in Wales.

Compared with, say, France or Italy, nowhere in Wales is remote from anywhere else in Wales. Geographically, we are the same size as the small American state of New Jersey but with less than a third of New Jersey's population. True, we can experience problems with our physical communications but, theoretically, the place is small enough for ideas, styles and trends to spread in a matter of hours, rather than years.

Almost no-where in Wales is impossibly remote from some of the greatest urban centres and markets of England. Cardiff and Swansea are much closer to London than is Newcastle, Glasgow or Liverpool. Much of north Wales and mid Wales is within convenient driving distances of Manchester and Birmingham.

When Surrealist art began appearing in Britain in the 1930s, Welsh artists saw it and debated it as quickly as artists from any other part of these islands. Indeed, the finest surrealist artist that Britain produced was from the mining village of Dunvant, near Swansea. His name was Ceri Richards and he was nothing less than a phenomenon in the international art world.

We went to Dunvant for the third programme in our series and discovered that Richards had been nurtured in a working class community that valued music and art as highly as it did honesty, hard work and Christianity.

Dunvant was the antithesis of insularity. It was a village excited by creativity and Richards had been part of an extraordinary creative milieu generated by the Swansea School of Art, the town's Glynn Vivian Gallery, the Kardomah Restaurant and Dylan Thomas' favourite pubs.

More than his contemporaries in Swansea, Ceri Richards was influenced by the work of Picasso and Matisse and, in 1962, he represented Britain at the world's foremost artfest, the Venice Biennale, where he was a prizewinner. But he was far from being the only Welsh artists to be influenced profoundly by artists from Europe and beyond.

In the 1940s, for example, young Welsh artists were able to visit the studios of two central European artists who escaped Nazi oppression to settle and work in Wales: Heinz Koppel in Dowlais and Josef Herman in Ystradgynlais. Others, like Kyffin Williams, and a host of talented young Welsh artists, lived in London and other English cities but concentrated the central thrust of their art on Wales and Welsh subjects.

This exchange of influences, ideas and experiences is the story of 20th century art across the developed world. It had as dynamic an influence on Welsh art as it did on the art of New York, Paris, London and St Ives.

Paradoxically, however, we discovered in making this, the third film of our series, that Wales also retained a reputation as a place where remoteness and solitude might be found. There were artists who came to Wales precisely because they sought remote places and what they hoped would be an accompanying simplicity of life.

One of them was Brenda Chamberlain who made the hazardous crossing to Bardsey Island to settle and work there in 1947. Like Chamberlain, other artists sought refuge in the Welsh hills from urban life and produced work of the highest quality.

Hopefully, our film illustrates a simple but important truth: the diversity and richness of art created in Wales, or about Wales, is the result of as complex a mix of personalities, techniques, geographies, ideas and influences as art created anywhere in the world. Perhaps we should be ready to celebrate that truth more often than we do.

Episode three of Framing Wales can be seen tonight, Thursday 10 March at 7.30pm on BBC Two Wales, or afterwards on BBC iPlayer.

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