Glenys Cour, The Colour of Saying: an artist and her world, Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea, 10 December 2016 – (5) extended to 12 February 2017.
Glenys Cour at the Attic Gallery, Swansea: 4 March – 1 April 2017
When Dylan Thomas declared, ‘Once it was the colour of saying/ Soaked my table the uglier side of the hill …’ he may have been speaking metaphorically, although the hills around his favourite stomping grounds in Swansea, a city built on hills, or perhaps Gower, with its disparate and diverse landscapes, left him plenty of scope for hyperbole. When the writer and critic Mel Gooding, who curated the retrospective exhibition, came up with his truncated quotation from Thomas’s poem, he perceived the felicity of the metaphor in relation to the life and work of Glenys Cour, probably Swansea’s oldest and best loved artist who is still practising her art at the age of ninety-three! Having lived in the city for over sixty years, she is now part of its fabric and has contributed significantly to its cultural framework. She is one of Swansea’s great ambassadors with her wide-ranging association with the city and its artistic landmarks, be it the visual arts and crafts, the performing arts and music, and of course its most famous poet, Dylan Thomas whom she met through her husband, sculptor Ronald Cour. Their friends included poet Vernon Watkins, composer Daniel Jones and painters Alfred Janes, not to mention her erstwhile teacher and mentor at Cardiff College of Art, Ceri Richards.
For anyone who may have missed seeing Glenys Cour’s exuberant exhibition at Swansea’s Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, consisting of assorted artworks that encompass her diverse range of paintings, sketch-books, collages, stained glass, stage designs, artist’s books, cartoons and posters, there is a further chance to see her latest works. Within just three weeks of The Colour of Saying finishing its extended run in the municipal gallery, a follow-up exhibition of paintings from this exhibition, collages and new paintings, opens on 4 March in the Attic Gallery in the city’s Marina quarter. As Cour explains, she’s a compulsive painter who’s been making art for so many years, that there are plenty more pictures in the Attic!
Where the retrospective tells the story of the life and times of Cour, this next exhibition reflects on many of the genres and themes which inform her entire oeuvres. One of Wales’s most gifted artists, she works in a multitude of disciplines using a variety of techniques to create her unique pieces, which are perhaps best described by a backward look at her recent retrospective.
The hang of the Glynn Vivian show was expertly conceived to encourage the viewer into a number of discreet spaces which were arranged in terms of the materials and methods favoured by Cour in relation to the respective series of works presented. The earliest of her works is a small, mixed media work The Nest (1960), which depicts two girls nursing a bird’s nest with three blue eggs. This is a finely wrought drawing in pen and ink, where a grey wash over the wooded landscape setting where the girls themselves nestle. Some green and orange crayon has been added over the girls’ dresses, which perhaps hints at Cour’s insistence on colour, even when the drawing is essentially monochromatic. Perhaps more tellingly, apart from a generic portrait of a woman, and excepting the illustrations elsewhere in the exhibition, this is the only figurative picture in the show. The majority of paintings are landscapes, with a substantial selection of flower portraits (generically these belong to the same genre), a subject to which Cour has continually turned throughout her career.
The first gallery space confirms this aspect with its collection of early, and a few later, images of landscapes. A number of these demonstrate Cour the experimentalist, who uses thin washes of paint in broad horizontal strokes, and simply shaped splodges to capture the essence of the fields, as shown in two pictures Gower Landscape 1 and 11, both dated 1975. In the first of these, the artist has experimented with texture by superimposing directional lines in pastel that define the contours of the land. In the second, she dispenses with imposed decoration, using instead the properties of colour to evoke the expanse, light, tones and depth of field, that she perceives on Gower. The peninsula, with its scale, diversity of land- and seascapes, in addition to the large, hurrying clouds that seem to typify the isthmus and its skyline, is one of her favourite places, and features a lot in her work. Its landmarks are her familiars, especially Cefn Bryn which she has explored on numerous occasions. This trusted motif appears in a work of 1981 that emulates Lucien Pissarro’s oil painting, Cefn Bryn (1933), and the two were hung side by side in the exhibition. Her rendition is less defined, more simplified than the neo-Impressionist’s, which suggests that she was continuing her quest for abstraction. Her resolve in developing an abstract aesthetic is apparent in her spirited close-ups of details on the mountain, where the results are intriguing renditions of the pool, where the colours are muted and wintry. The dates for these are 1963 and 1965 respectively – daringly early for such exceptionally balanced compositional exercises where the pictures seem to glisten with moisture. In 1977, the same generic composition is recalled in Blue Monument, this time in mixed media, which includes paint and cut and torn papers collaged into the design. Two years later, she started to use collage to its full potential, when she was commissioned to make set designs for the theatre.
Cour’s obsession with colour and its properties was prompted by her research into Josef Albers’s (1888-1976), colour analyses. The Bauhaus artist demonstrated how colour can catch us out, it hoodwinks us into thinking we see things we think we see, rather than seeing things as they are: colours appear to enlarge or diminish the objects observed, yet such a phenomenon is a trick of the eye. In much the same way that we see things in perspective, colour has the same kind of apparently distortive, or should we say realistic, properties?
Armed with this knowledge we are subsequently confronted with the rich, strong, translucent colours of stained glass, that reminds us that Cour is one of the most popular tutors who taught at Swansea School of Art. She is especially associated with the architectural glass department, where her lectures in visual literacy and art history were legendary, encouraging and sustaining many students who are today’s famous practitioners. A number of these made tributes to their old mentor, and the ‘glass’ space is perhaps the one that is most immersive in terms of colour, which is reflected and refracted, dancing and glancing off the walls, as well as from the exhibits. Cour’s rose window, a dynamic memorial to Dylan Thomas, is a fitting tribute to the poet, and its life-sized cartoon is also on display, where the design puns on the rose as window and flower, further implicating another of Thomas’s famous poems, The Force that Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower.
The glass gallery with its spangling colours prepares us for the next space which hosts two congruent genres: collages and landscapes. Her richly saturated oil paintings of the landscapes she looks out at every day from her studio, fascinate her by the constant change and flux of the rioting, or scintillating, colours of sea, land and sky shining in sunlight, or brooding at the menacing storms, heaving clouds and waves, where nature mixes, stirs up, and transforms, the familiar into the uncanny. Two opposing long walls are hung with such landscapes, but on one wall the paintings were made about ten years ago, while the other supports her more recent landscapes. Those like Gold Squall (2008), are composite layers of dilute oil paint, sometimes overpainted by other thin layers of translucent colour, resulting in a polished sheen resonating from the canvas. Complementing these landscapes on the opposite wall, Cour’s method was to build up thick paint so that the impasto can be physically handled and scumbled, which often adds a subtle texture over the surface, where brushstrokes and fingerprints might also be detected owing to the artist’s eagerness to depict her interpretation of the scene outside her window. In some of these, a dark frame, usually black, accompanies the subject, perhaps nuancing the window’s importance. There could be a throwback here to Cour’s years in the Glass Dept., where the penetrating colours of glass are enhanced and strengthened by the contrasting black, leaded lines that surround each of the vivid coloured panels. This same frame of reference occurs also in her latest flower paintings where the interior is festooned with colour.
Within these works there is an abstract quality that subjugates the literal in the way she handles the paint, and which epitomises the bold, powerful colours of her collages that characterise the millennium era for Cour. Her interest in paper, colour and texture led to her making her own thick, tactile paper which she then paints and dyes in rich, saturated colours. With collage, its cut or torn paper pieces can be manipulated around the card or paper forming the base ground, allowing the artist to move the shapes about, until she is satisfied with the composition, where positive and negative shapes in particular, are considered. The first layer, which may overlap on adjacent shapes, could have subsequent additions superimposed on them, resulting in a work comprising several layers that ultimately create a relief. Often she titles them with the names of characters from The Mabinogion, such as Branwen or Blodeuwedd, or alternatively, those that recall poems, like In Charge of the Moon, courtesy of poet William Greenway. Normally, the collages are smaller in scale than her paintings, although many have generous frames. Some are arranged horizontally at eye level, and the viewer moving slowly along this row beholds the glistening, enamelled-like reliefs, where their profoundly intriguing centres. Deep, Grecian blues, and rich, Moorish greens and purples, are juxtaposed and dispersed over the limited central kernel which is host also to proportionately smaller amounts of additional colours. But the key to the magic of these is gold. Used sparingly, its metallic warmth seems to vitalise the adjacent tones so that all rise to a crescendo in this symphony of colour. A further sequence of collages with their remarkable resemblance to encrusted gems decorate a large vertical wall opposite, and are arranged in a manner that recalls the east wall of a church with its seductive stained glass. These intricate, fragmentary pictures glow like miniatures in illuminated manuscripts – or are they perhaps precious relics, once the attributes of the saints of Christendom?
The allusion to manuscripts is apt concerning the final gallery space which draws together Cour’s focus on word and image, where examples of the posters for the annual Swansea Festival adorn the walls and the ephemera in glass cases. Likewise, there are examples of the illustrations and collages that were made as stage designs for operas, and especially for The Dylan Thomas Theatre. Her original collages and designs for the sets and publicity materials for many cultural events in Swansea (and Brecon), are a testament to the sustained energy and innovation of this persistent artist. Her repertoire appears unbounded, as her exceptional designs for artists’ books attest. These are poetry books which she was commissioned to make for the Old Stile Press and, aware of the clarity of composition required for representing generic shapes and figures, she opted to create the master images as collages. Instead of the complex, layered reliefs of her previous examples, those for the books are much simplified. Using only black and white, with seldom much more than a smidgen of gold, these sublime illustrations are a synergetic reflection of the text coupled with the imaginative vision of the artist. They are unique in terms of their compositions, negative shapes and delicate balance on the page, as depicted in Vernon Watkins’s Taliesin and the Mockers (2004). The line, ‘I observed/ the designing of flowers … ’ reverberated through her head, and she felt compelled to create other alternative images that evoke the concept of designing flowers.
The images of flowers bring this show right into 2017. Cour’s most recent paintings feature flowers including A Yellow Arrow of Light (2017). Looking at the floral delights, they often resemble a jumble of exciting colours in close proximity to one another, and the actual species is sometimes hard to identify. But look carefully, isn’t that a rose we can distinguish, and that an anemone? Each bloom has its individual identity, as perceived also in Daisy (2014), where the posy of colours seems to jostle forward while the painted frames surrounding them recede into the background. But their emphatic colours vye with the flowers, pushing them forward, so that the composition shifts backwards and forwards almost eliciting a pulsing movement from these organic vanguards. Unlike the nuanced stillness in the great flower pieces of Dutch artist Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750), Cour’s flowers do not moralise: there are no fading or dying blooms in her arrangements, nor are there crawling insects reminding us of our mortality, or indeed Blake’s sick rose. Rather, Cour’s floral arrangements are brilliantly joyous, celebratory bouquets that inspire life and living, and which emanate from the beautiful world the artist observes daily, a world festooned with exquisite colours.