Review of National Museum of Wales – The Power of Land

ARTicle written by ARTiculation Ambassador, Neave Cunningham (University of Cardiff)

There are few things that I missed more during the lockdown period more than a rainy day visit to a gallery. I was elated when I learned that my ‘local’ museum was finally reopening its doors once again.

Having pre-booked my tickets online, I found myself waiting in line outside of the National Museum of Wales on a predictably and particularly rainy Thursday morning, the first day of the museum’s reopening. I was very glad to see a queue of people excited about the opening, as the museum as well as the people’s engagement with art have suffered heavily during the lockdown period. It is clear that people have missed seeing art and are keen to visit their favourite galleries once again.

The queue is necessary to slow down the flow of people entering the museum at any given time, and to allow the staff to scan your tickets to verify your entry. I did not have to wait long, and it kept everyone feeling confident and safe.

A few minutes later, with my mask on and my QR code scanned, I was once again standing in the grand entrance hall of the museum, as though it had never shut. The dramatic high ceilings, the echoey hallways and the laughter of children is such a happy and familiar environment for any art lover – it was so nice to be back.  

Now, I can sympathise with anyone’s apprehension about returning to public spaces, especially with crowds of other people. However, museums are often custom built to circulate people, and they nearly always have ample space for social distancing. My experience didn’t disappoint, all of the staff at the National Museum were helpfully placed to direct you around the building, and they were all committed to keeping everyone safe.

I knew immediately that I wanted to visit the exhibition, The Power of Land: The Welsh Landscape Gallery. This exhibition sits in the museum’s permanent collection and explores the landscapes of Wales through the eyes of local artists, and others – tourists, casual visitors – who found inspiration in the natural beauty of the land. I think if there is one good that we can take from the coronavirus pandemic, it is an enhanced appreciation for the outdoors. In this respect, it felt like a very fitting exhibition to make a return after five long months; it made me ponder how nature and the Welsh landscape has helped many people cope in uncertain times.  

If you live in Wales, this exhibition is a joyous celebration of the beautiful landscapes that can be found throughout the whole of the country, even just a few miles out of the centre of the capital city. It is exciting to recognise your favourite landmarks and to see them interpreted by artists in their own styles. If you are visiting Wales as a tourist, the exhibition offers a fantastic range of insights into the beauty and uniqueness of the land and the people who inhabit it. From Alfred East’s traditional painting in oils of the Bay of Harlech, to John Piper’s charming depiction of the steelworks at Ebbw Vale. The exhibition gives you a rounded view of Wales from a multitude of perspectives and time periods.

One of my favourite paintings in the exhibition is Jack Crabtree’s Polluted Pool at Maindee. Crabtree spent much of his career living and working in South Wales, portraying the changing face of the Welsh coalfields in the 1970s. His painting of the pool at Maindee differs a lot from his other works and indeed from almost anything else in the exhibition. Its saturated lime green palette and contrasting naive done in a photo-realistic painting technique gives it a taste of the changing and restless landscape that Wales was and still is.

Another comment on social change in Wales comes in the form of Carwyn Evans’ installation piece, Unlliw, the title taken from a Welsh proverb which translates ‘birds of a feather flock together.’

The installation is made up of 6,500 cardboard bird boxes, intended to represent the 6,500 houses planned to be built by Ceredigion Council over just 15 years, starting in 2002. Evans’ concern for his home county was over the quality of the houses and the impact of a sudden population increase on the previously quiet communities of Ceredigion. Indeed, the way the tiny cardboard bird boxes stack up and tumble down over each other, the huge mound even encroaching on some of the paintings on the wall of the gallery, give a strong and tangible expression of Evans’ concerns.

You leave the Power of the Land with an enormous appreciation of the beauty of Wales, but also a strong sense of the change that the country has gone through in the past and is still currently experiencing.

There is so much in the National Museum’s collection to explore. The permanent collection is always such a joy and is certainly worth a visit. I’ll be booking my ticket for the opening of the long-anticipated Becoming Richard Burton exhibition planned to open on 7 November. I hope to see you there.

ARTicle by Neave Cunningham, ARTiculation Ambassador

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