Review: Bywyd a Gwaith Ogwyn Davies – A Life in Art by Ceri Thomas
This handsome and generously illustrated volume chronicles the long life and artistic times of one of Wales’ most significant artists of the period following the Second World War. There is a rich selection of images to amplify the text and so allow the reader to follow the development of Davies’ various creative and political concerns. For political he most certainly was, and concerned about aspects of Welsh culture that he viewed as under threat.
The slim but winning margin of 6,721 votes in the devolution referendum of the 18th September 1997 became for him talismanic and he created some large scale works such as ‘Licence to Assemble.’ This presented those figures as a paper collage which, on close scrutiny revealed that the individual pixillations making up the numerals were made up of tiny versions of the word “Ie,”“Yes.”
This book by the artist and critic Ceri Thomas, who has done so much to explain and explore Welsh art, offers a brisk introduction to the artist’s life and to the various phases of Davies’ creative development.
David Ogwyn Davies was born in Trebanos in the Swansea Valley, an industrialised village where his father worked making tinplate. Ceri Thomas deftly uses Alfred Zimmern’s three-Wales model to suggest that Davies’ early upbringing in industrial south Wales was in an integral part of what Zimmern called ‘American Wales,’ as opposed to upper class or English Wales and what he referred to as ‘Welsh Wales.’
Son Ogwyn didn’t follow in his dad’s footsteps but rather became an art teacher at Tregaron for many, many years. Here he informed and inspired pupils such as the writer Lyn Ebenezer who recalls him saying ‘Listen now Lyn, when you look at a view, half close your eyes. Each line will meld into the next, you see. The world will look as if Cézanne had painted it.’
Although he may have started life in the so-called ‘American Wales’ – painting the terraced ribbons of houses in Ystalyfera or quiet bar scenes in Pontardawe – Ogwyn Davies would become very much an interrogator and celebrant of ‘Welsh Wales.’
He painted chapels and dedicated works to Welsh people of note, such as Owain Goch ap Gruffydd, who was incarcerated in Dolbadarn castle by his brother Llywelyn, created a mixed media wall in honour of the writer Saunders Lewis and work to mark the success of Caradog “Crag” Jones, who was the first Welshman to climb Everest.
Choral singing and rugby, Cardiganshire farmhouses, the music of son-in-law Geraint Jarman and the inspiring words of the national anthem all featured in his work as motifs or overt references and quotations.
But it was perhaps rural life and the contours of the countryside that captured his imagination most often, or indeed fully released it and gave it expression. Even farm machinery and equipment could be, for him, transformative:
Sometimes they appear to have alighted into the landscape like some large, iron insect. In movement, they hiss and attack the hay like angry geese.
The rust I was cleaning from my car was a red orange cosmos. I often have a strong sense of the oneness of all things…I have become a Portion of that around me…
A piece of bronze I saw in a museum became for me the landscape where it had lain and the archaeological ‘dig’ which revealed it. Farm buildings and part of a machine ‘become’ an owl.
The qualities I most admire in a landscape are strangeness, mystery and a sense of timelessness.
There were parts of the landscape around his home near Tregaron which drew him to them, time after time. One of these was Mynydd Gwyngoed, which he could see from his studio, part of a modern version of the traditional Welsh longhouse. He gathered the names of all of its features and fields – ‘Rhos Bella,” “Cae Calch,” “Cae Teiliwr” and “Cae Cnwc” and so on – by talking to locals.
He subsequently made work which was patterned with such names as well as by conspiracies of ravens, as they tumbled through the air. Davies was often inspired by birds, keeping a diary of the ones he spotted – and these dagger-beaked members of the crow family fly through his work as certainly as they do through mid-Wales skies.
He also used words and a range of other materials in his art, a feature which Thomas dates to a serendipitous gallery visit to the Glynn Vivian gallery in Swansea where Davies encountered the work of the Catalan artist Antoni Tàpies, who used a wide variety of materials in his work, such as marble dust, clay, strings and rags to add both relief and texture to the surface of his works as well as graffiti and symbols of Catalan resistance and solidarity.
Thomas demonstrates how Tàpies’ work resonated with Ogwyn Davies for a very long time and you can see it in work which uses stone from the Hendre Quarry at Pontrhydfendigaid or mixes the various ‘dusts of Wales’ with various glues.
Towards the end of this bright, very reasonably priced and brilliantly illustrated book Ceri Thomas encapsulates the ways in which Ogwyn Davies synthesised ‘the traditional and the modern, the Welsh and the internationalist,’ noting the ‘pioneering, almost alchemical process of his’ which began in the Sixties and continued into the 21st century and was ‘more radical than that of those contemporary Welsh artists whom he knew and admired, such as the Neo-Romantic painter John Elwyn and the Expressionists Peter Prendergast and Kyffin Williams.’
Radical, yes, pioneering most certainly, for here was an artist of rare range and compass as well as being a passionate Welshman to his very core.
Bywyd a Gwaith Ogwyn Davies: A Life in Art by Ceri Thomas is published by Y Lolfa. It is available here or from all good bookshops.
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