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Framing Wales: art in the 20th century

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Kim Howells Kim Howells | 13:17 UK time, Thursday, 17 February 2011

How does a battered survivor of 40 years of stormy political wars start to tell the story of art created in Wales in the 20th century? Climbing alone in the Alps in 2010, I had plenty of time to think about it.

It struck me that rugged, dramatic scenery was the obvious place to start. After all, for over 250 years, our sublime Welsh landscape has drawn and inspired artists, from Richard Wilson and JMW Turner to Charles Burton and Ernest Zobole.

And, of course, that landscape has people in it. Special people who provided the security and encouragement that enabled artists to pursue new directions in their work. Heinz Koppel and Josef Herman, for example, escaped Nazi tyranny and found sanctuary and inspiration among the men and women of Dowlais and Ystradgynlais. They brought with them new ideas and challenging techniques that helped inspire young Welsh artists. And the place was wide open to new ideas.

Kim Howells

Kim Howells

Right at the beginning of the century Wales possessed not only coal, slate and steel industries the equal of any in the world, but a painter whose reputation rode as high in the international celebrity league tables as any artist from Paris, Berlin or New York. Augustus John was a force to be reckoned with in every sense: a draughtsman of extraordinary skill and flair, capable of infusing his work with penetrating insights into the character of his sitters, he was in constant demand and able to command huge commissions.

Augustus John

Augustus John

Ready, always, to sail close to the rocks of scandal and controversy, Augustus John made no secret of his sister Gwen's willingness to pose naked for him. He considered her to be a painter of the first rank and, indeed, her reputation grew throughout the century.

Working in France, while her brother painted the great and the good of British Society, Gwen John became the model and lover of the world's most celebrated sculptor, Auguste Rodin, before retreating into a world of religious mysticism where her painting flourished. Not bad for two children, born and raised in West Wales.

That is why we have chosen them to begin this remarkable story. In four films, starting with the Johns and ending with the continuing creative surge into the 21st century, we will show how painters in Wales, throughout the century, produced work the equal of any in the world.

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Framing Wales begins on Thursday 24 February at 7.30pm on BBC Two Wales.


  • Comment number 1.

    An interesting programme, thanks! But I was disappointed that when you showed the painting by Margaret Lindsay Williams you did not feel it merited speaking her name, perhaps (but unjustifiably) because the name was written at the bottom of the work. You have thus continued the strange public silence since her death in 1960. This pre-feminist but brave woman made a good career in portraiture, after early successes as a student at the Royal Academy. So is this silence because the John siblings became the darlings of avant-gardism whereas Williams did not subscribe to modernism? As Angela Gaffney has discussed in "Wedded to her Art", she did paint several intesting pictures about the temptations and problems encountered by a woman in the corrupt materialistic world of the 1920s. Are feminists only interested in women who agree with them?


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