Kyffin Williams, long regarded as Wales’ greatest landscape painter of the twentieth century, once said that he did not see why anybody would look for evolution in his style; his focus, he said, was on getting better at painting, not in creating revolutions. So it is tempting to view this exceptional career-spanning exhibition of Williams’ work at the National Library in Aberystwyth as one of no-development, of a painter who found his feet early on and hammered away on the spot for fifty years. But there is more to the self-effacing gentleman artist than that, and more to this exhibition than a simple celebration. This is an opportunity for reappraisal, for people to decide just how good Williams was, and where exactly he stands in the pantheon.
I wrote recently how Kyffin Williams’ crown could indeed be up for grabs, particularly from Peter Prendergast, whose visceral relationship with the landscapes he painted sometimes hold in stark contrast to Williams’ arms-length nineteenth century approach. I still believe Prendergast is the more vital of the two artists, but it is to the credit of exhibitions like this that we can take another look at the great works that made Williams’ international reputation. His landscapes remain powerful in a sense – they are imposing often in scale, and Williams had an eye for the dramatic. Indeed, he hit on a popular formula that he often joked about. Williams would genially say to friends how he could “knock out a Kyff” in an afternoon and sell it on for a mint. Is this cynicism? Is it exploitation of the scenester arts-consumer? Does it really matter? It doesn’t seem to matter to the curators here, as they mount an affectionate warts ‘n’ all display. Behind the Frame is an honest biography, not a branding exercise.
There had always seemed something dreadfully tragic about Williams’ Welsh landscapes, and not so much in the guise of the oft’ included farmer figure, pressing through the wind holding his coat shut, but rather in the longing gaze of the painter himself. Williams began painting as a therapeutic remedy to his depressive moods, and when he finally found his stride, after years aping Van Gogh and others, it was loneliness that was his metier. Williams, a product of the landed gentry, painted the “farmer figure” with a wry sadness familiar to fans of the Ted and Ralph sketches on The Fast Show. The repetition of this solitary figure suggests an attempt by Williams to approach the unknowable temperament of the working man. In these paintings we see not an artist trying to understand the unforgiving landscape, but a member of the gentry trying to understand a class to which he felt an affiliation but had no entry point. His landscapes are love letters to things he could not be, a validation that society refuses the privileged. From this perspective they are extremely sombre and moving images.
If this was Williams at his best then it was because it was him at his truest. The Crachach may have collected Kyffs like baseball cards in the 90s and 00s because of his received mantle as an authentic Welsh voice robust with the grit and fortitude that supposedly resembles a national characteristic, but these works are closer to a sadness that was Williams’ own. He was a watcher, a man with very little sense of belonging. These rolling hills in his paintings are escapist netherworlds, not glorious kingdoms. “The Gathering, or, Farmers on Glyder Fach” makes something of a centrepiece of the exhibition, and it seems almost intrusive by the time you get to it.
But that Lordly distance is important. People, individuals, did not interest him, which is why his portraiture is often so cold. There is something ruthless about them, almost as if the joke is on the subject. We, the viewers, are in on it, though. Williams as a portraitist betrays something of the bully. Where he wants to be is on the hillside, watching faceless strangers from afar.
Perhaps in his portraits, Williams has too much respect for his subjects when they sit, and this is mixed with a superficiality that comes from a lack of genuine intrigue. Contrastingly, his ink sketches of Rev George Salt are striking in their almost violent brevity. They may lack in technical prowess, but there’s no denying they attract the eye with their energy. The coldness in his portraits of others is made up for in the humour of his self-portraits. The exhibition begins with jocular, Quentin Blake-esque cartoons and self-mockery, and hangs his portraits of others at the other end of the hall. Many of the cartoons are quite frivolous, and it’s a bold way to invite people in.
That Kyffin Williams has been overrated for too long is now widely accepted by most critics and artists (if not by all collectors), and this exhibition staged by the National Library is an extremely mature and notable for its honesty. There is no attempt here to applaud any invisible imperial garments, just a comprehensive display of the work sprouting from a long and successful career. If Wales wants to stand tall on the world stage, it has to have reappraisals of artists like Williams. And if we decide he was overrated? Well, Williams himself would probably have been the first to agree.