For centuries, art has been defined and controlled by a privileged few, entwining museum collections with legacies of racism, sexism and classism. As a result, these collections can remain irrelevant to the public.
Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museum Wales – NMW), has been subject to much attention of late for its work on these long-standing issues, partly due to the temporary removal of a portrait of Thomas Picton as part of the youth-led Reframing Picton project. Welsh-born military leader Picton governed Trinidad from 1797 to 1803 and was known for his cruel treatment of slaves. He was often dubbed the Tyrant of Trinidad or the Bloodstained Governor.
In partnership with the Sub-Sahara Advisory Panel Youth Leadership Network, the Reframing Picton project will see the portrait reinterpreted and redisplayed. NMW has commissioned two new artworks by Trinidadian and Tobagan multi-disciplinary artist Gesiye and UK-based Laku Neg, a group of four artists of Trinidadian heritage, to amplify stories from those who have not previously been included in the narratives around Picton.
It is in this atmosphere that The Rules of Art? has opened, centred on the ranking of art subjects as devised by the French Academy of Fine Arts (Académie des Beaux-Arts) in the 17th century. This influential ranking placed historical scenes at its pinnacle, then portraiture, then everyday scenes, then landscape, with still life at the bottom. Over the past four centuries, this ranking has heavily influenced “western art” and, ultimately, dictated what museums collect and, more importantly, what they were complicit in excluding.
The Rules of Art? is organised into the respective categories across four defined gallery spaces (portraits and everyday scenes are combined into one), bringing together works from NMW’s collection of more than 50,000 artworks. The purpose of The Rules of Art? is simply put in the introduction to the show: “We want to look at the rules, see them with fresh eyes and challenge them.”
As you move into the exhibition, the first impression of how these rules will be challenged is the contrasting appearance of the Virgin Adoring the Child with the Young St John the Baptist, attributed to the workshop of the renaissance artist Botticelli, and Mother and Child, a photograph taken by Helen Muspratt in 1937. Created almost 500 years apart, these images – one oil on board, the other gelatin silver print – both use the same historical and religious form of mother and child yet convey two distinct narratives. The latter is a sensitive and authentic portrayal of life in 1930s South Wales coalfields, while the other evokes the riches and privilege of renaissance Florence. The two works set the tone for how the categories of art will be interrogated.
The layout of the exhibition is a subtle challenge to the ranking. The procession of spaces starts with the supposed pinnacle of art, the history painting, and has dedicated sections to each “category” of landscape, still life, portraiture and everyday scenes. Unlike 17th century France, NMW has given them no particular order – or rank.
Within the section devoted to still life, two works come to particular attention. A Vase of Flowers is an 18th century still life attributed to Simon Hardimé that looks beyond the meaning of cut flowers to explicitly broadcast how these were a product of Dutch colonial power. The second is a series of three photographs attributed to Mary Dillwyn (1816-1906). The accompanying text rightfully recognises the significance of Dillwyn as the first female photographer in Wales, but equally highlights how for many years some of her work has been wrongly attributed to her brother John Dillwyn Llewelyn. The two works embody the exhibition’s aim of challenging the rules of art and to see them from a different perspective, one that has always been there, but has rarely been presented.
The exploits of empire and colonialism are exemplified in the cutting of flowers and sexism, seen in both the creation and collection of Dillwyn’s photographs. These are legacies that no museum collection like this can escape and, crucially, need to be acknowledged.
The sections on portraits and the everyday continue in this vein, subtly challenging and contextualising. Combining the everyday with portraits brings equity, embodied by a series of 16 works by William Jones Chapman, a 19th-century travelling portrait and sporting painter, which depict employees of the industrialist Francis Crawshay. The paintings of these people show the range of jobs that helped operate Crawshay’s Hirwaun Ironworks and his tinplate works at Treforest, near Pontypridd.
The Portraits section acknowledges the role of portrait artists such as society painter Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), who left a legacy in portraits depicting “the architects of the British empire” as the exhibition interpretation says.
In contrast to this, we see the works of artists of the 20th and 21st centuries, such as Donald Rodney and Caroline Walker. Their works together with others in this exhibition highlight – though without explicitly stating it – how museums are only now starting to address their collecting bias and silence on the lack of diversity in art collections. The works of these artists bring in perspectives, values and lived experiences that for centuries have been excluded because of the rules that have defined art and the societies in which they were conceived.
Behind the scenes
The final landscapes gallery gives different depictions of Wales, from traditional scenes to a more intense and thought-provoking emotional depiction by James Rilley of the 1966 Aberfan disaster in which 116 children and 28 adults were killed after a coal waste tip crashed down a hillside engulfing a school and nearby homes.
Other works in this section give a sense of Wales – as do the other spaces – but here perhaps there is the opportunity to explore in more depth the industrial landscapes of Wales and their place in the context of empire and social class.
The final work is the 2015 film Vertigo Sea by John Akomfrah, which is an intense exploration of nature, but also the devastation that humanity has wrought on the natural world and to millions of fellow humans. It is more than 40-minutes long and more permanent seating would encourage greater dwell time and a chance for visitors to engage more deeply with this work.
There is a clear intention in this exhibition to take a new look at NMW’s art collection. It addresses the narratives that an artwork can hold and recognises that one piece of art can hold multiple stories at the same time, so it is important to place works in context.
This show is centred around bringing new voices to challenge the status quo. Strikingly then, there is such a uniformity to the language of the interpretation texts that you leave without knowing who these voices were. You are left with a desire to hear those authentic, real voices. NMW has the opportunity to continue this dialogue and bring in more perspectives beyond this one show, and projects such as Valleys Re-told – a community-led interpretation project – sit naturally within this.
The Rules of Art? has taken a step in the right direction to show different perspectives by presenting these works in an alternative light and continues an important conversation that reminds us art can never sit
William Tregaskes is the museum manager of Cynon Valley Museum, Aberdare