Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Wilson up close and personal

Last week I had to run an errand across town and, on my way back, decided to drop into the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff. I’m alarmed at how infrequently I visit this place, packed as it is with world class exhibits and a marvellous array of international art. And it's free to enter!

Prize exhibit at the moment is a £23 million painting of Salisbury Cathedral by John Constable, an awe inspiring work, vast in size and as crisply coloured as the day it was first painted. Photographs don’t do it justice. Three teenage schoolgirls sat in front of it for the ten minutes I was there, not saying anything, not even moving but, like me, enjoying the artwork.

In the adjacent galleries an exhibition of paintings and drawings by Wales’ most illustrious painter, Richard Wilson, was taking place. I’m glad I caught it. Wilson (1714-1782) travelled widely, redefining landscape painting and changing the very definition of beauty. Instead of the stylised and symbolic works of his contemporaries, he painted what was in front of him, actual landscapes and genuine settings (with only the occasional compositional device thrown in). Country house owners rushed to have their actual estates painted in all their glory. Meanwhile his bleak unadorned portrayals of Welsh mountain peaks were shocking to traditional eyes because of their stark simplicity.

Fascinating to me were Wilson’s delightfully witty portrayal of people. It’s not something you would notice unless you could stand a few feet in front of these big canvases. Sparingly placed at the edges of his landscapes are people going about their everyday business, walking, fishing, washing clothes, swimming. His painting of the town of Pembroke has a small child climbing a tree while, at the bottom of the cliff, his father tries to beckon him down. In the background there are skinny dippers discarding their clothes and swimming in the river. Even more remarkably for the time, Wilson portrays a woman breastfeeding her baby overlooking the River Arno, Italy, while her husband lies beside her tending his fishing rod (that’s not a euphemism by the way). The woman stares out of the canvas, challenging you to contemplate the intimate moment you’ve stumbled upon.

Wilson inspired John Constable and this exhibition is heralded as a once-in-a-generation gathering together of his paintings (a once-in-300-years tercentennial celebration of his birth). A marvellous opportunity. Paintings (well, the best ones) always reveal new and interesting qualities when they’re viewed ‘live’ and close up.

Richard Wilson and the Transformation of European Landscape Painting until 26 October 2014