There’s a gem of an art gallery on Anglesey: visitors to the island who spare a little time from the beach or trail, or who pause and take a turn off the A55 before hurtling on for the ferry at Holyhead, will be well rewarded. Oriel Ynys Môn is the gallery; it’s in Llangefni, the town where the painter Kyffin Williams was born. On Anglesey for a short break last weekend, we saw the gallery’s latest exhibition of Williams’ work, Venezia: Drawn to the Light.
The gallery opened in 2008 and alongside exhibitions of work by other artists, always maintains a display of work by two artists with local connections: Kyffin Williams who was born here, and Charles Frederick Tunnicliffe – best known for his extraordinary bird illustrations – who hailed from Macclesfield in Cheshire, but lived on Anglesey from 1947 until his death in 1979.
Kyffin Williams is best known for his impasto paintings of Welsh landscapes and muscular portraits, often of hill farmers and characters from the villages and valleys of Anglesey and Snowdonia. The current exhibition of his work turns its attention to paintings which Williams made in Venice, a place which inspired him for more than half a century. Williams was fascinated by light mirrored on water, and the paintings he produced in Venice reflect this. But Venice was a special place for Kyffin for another reason: as a student at the Slade School of Fine Art in the 1940s he studied, and was inspired by, the work of Venetian painters such as Canaletto and Guardi, as well as visitors to the city such as Monet, Turner, Sickert and Brangwyn. This exhibition (which continues until February 2014) traces the artist’s relationship with the city through displays of his work, as well as paintings by the artists who inspired him, drawn from the collections of the British Museum, The National Gallery and the National Museum of Wales.
Showing alongside the exhibits is a documentary made in 2004, Kyffin Williams – Reflections in a Gondola, in which Williams (who is indeed gliding along in a Venetian gondola) is asked to select four most fortunate moments that changed the course of his life. He cites his Welsh upbringing, seeing a 15th-century Italian fresco by Piero Della Francesca for the first time, and the realisation in 1947 that he might be able to earn his living as a painter. His fourth choice is the first of his many visits to Venice in 1950.
One of the Venetian artists who Williams admired was Giovanni Antonio Canal, ‘Canaletto’ whose Entrance to the Grand Canal from 1744 is displayed here. Although Williams accepted that Canaletto was a great painter whose topographical paintings recorded Venice in great detail, he regarded Francesco Guardi as the artist who truly conveyed the feeling and the spirit of the place. Williams preferred Guardi’s more interpretive and spontaneous painting style: in particular, the way he painted human figures with a few darting, rapid brush strokes.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, leading painters were drawn to Venice, attracted, in Kyffin’s words, by ‘the opulence and sumptuousness and elegance’ of the city, and by the pearly light and ever-present water. The exhibition features paintings by Turner, Monet, Sickert and Brangwyn
Turner’s painting St Mark’s Place, Venice – Juliet and her Nurse, depicts the annual carnival held from the end of January to Lent. Turner has placed Juliet in Venice, rather than Shakespeare’s Verona.
In the film, Williams talks of Monet being the artist who made the greatest impression on him: ‘I like to be moved and I was greatly moved by his paintings’.
It’s easy to see the influence that Sickert’s painting had on Kyffin’s style: in the film, Williams remarks that during his time at the Slade, ‘Augustus John was pushed down our throats and therefore I appreciated Sickert more’.
The Anglo-Welsh artist Frank Brangwyn is represented here by Venice: St Mark’s from the Lagoon, painted in 1896.
So, moving on to Kyffin Williams’ impressions of Venice. He first visited the city in 1950, 32 years old and in his first teaching job:
I was happy in Venice for, even though it was difficult for me to see in the strong sunlight, inside the churches and galleries I fell under the spell of Venetian art. I had always loved its exuberance and lack of inhibition and now I was able to see some of the greatest paintings in the world.
Other visits followed over the years, including a productive one in October 1979 that resulted in a great many Venetian scenes in oil, and it’s these paintings which comprise the main bulk of this exhibition.
You really couldn’t mistake these paintings as being by anybody other than Kyffin Williams: the way his brush has applied paint to the canvas in thick, gelatinous slurps, and the slate-grey dullness with which he has depicted Welsh crags and the craggy faces of Welsh sheep farmers. The colours he uses in The Lagoon 2, though painted in ‘the silvery light’ of Venice, (Kyffin’s words) are the colours of North Wales slate: dark grey, dark mahogany, and – for that silvery light -light greys and off-white. They are striking images.
Kyffin Williams visited Venice for the last time in 2004 – the journey that was documented in Reflections in a Gondola. The only painting he made on that last visit was The Grand Canal, one of his last paintings before he died in September 2006.
In a lecture in 2011, travel writer Jan Morris (who wrote two books about Venice) described this as ‘one of the most strikingly idiosyncratic interpretations of the Grand Canal’. She went on:
I suppose I have in my library at home a couple of hundred paintings of the Grand Canal – in reproduction, I mean – and not one of them is remotely like this remarkable picture of Kyffin’s. It is a deadpan kind of picture. The canal looks as though it might be frozen, and the sparse traffic on it – a solitary gondola, a couple of indeterminate skiffs – seem motionless. The sky is a dark, rather surly blue. The water, though not rough, seems oddly perturbed, just as it does in some of his Welsh seascapes. The majestic avenue of palaces looks utterly lifeless, and the only recognisable sign of humanity in the picture is the blurred figure of the oarsman in his otherwise empty gondola. The picture is entirely Kyffin.