Wales & Surrealism: A Short Survey
by John Richardson and John Welson
Published 2nd March 2019 at
A pearl necklace is a composite object of beauty, it exists as a finished piece, a necklace, but it is made up of a selection of beautiful pearls, each one enchanting in its own right, but when strung together their singular beauty enhances the whole. An overall thing of beauty comes from the beautiful things that it is made from…
Surrealism exists as an international energy, force and celebration, from every corner of the world those who realize the organic spirit of Surrealism, add, share and participate in the realization of Surrealism as a force for human lucidity and they are its constituent pulse and life force, the corner stones of a world Surrealist sensibility. That there is Surrealist activity in Wales reflects that Surrealists in Wales are sharing in a wider adventure, the celebration of the freedom from the constraints of myopic nationalism, cultural stereotyping and the jingoistic mystification of the corrupted reshaping of history. Surrealist activity in Wales has the single aim of making the possible possible, it is the realization of the emancipation of the human condition.
From the creative energies of the first Welsh writers and painters who in the 1930s felt inspired to give free reign to their imaginations and share the Surrealist adventure right up to present day celebrators of Surrealism know that the fire of their being is the Celtic Myth.
Since the earliest days of British Surrealist movement (in London) in the 1930s, the painters Merlyn Evans (born Cardiff, 1910) who travelled to Paris and worked in S W Hayter’s Atelier 17 in the early 1930s meeting members of the Paris Group, Ceri Richards (born Dunvant, near Swansea, 1903) and the poet Dylan Thomas (born Swansea, 1914) were to be at the centre of Surrealist activities. All three conjured with the landscape, the vista of the scape as a living entity offering attributes that turned the land into a living breathing force pulsating of and from the inner myth that is man of and in the land. A short period of time elapsed before the painter and writer Desmond Morris whose family hailed from Wales was to join the Birmingham Group and this was followed by the writer J H Matthews, also born in Swansea. These formidable energies shared the fire of the Celtic Myth in the same fashion that the painter Graham Sutherland stayed in Wales for long periods of time absorbing the force of the Welsh landscape that is infused with the Welsh Myth, the land of dragons, standing stones and a myriad river princesses, magical fish and beasts, headless hounds and the footprints of the druids, their echoes resounding in the many ranges of mountains that make up the Welsh terrain. Whilst from and of Wales the Surrealist adventure took these creative figures to all four corners of the earth.
In the 1960s the world was changing rapidly, Wales too was being transformed, an insular country (in part due to its geophysical make up, predominantly mountainous and isolated in Mid/North and the majority of South Wales, an economy based on farming with the exception of the coal fields and steel works of South Wales which contained a large percentage of the population of the country) with its own individual spoken and written language, it was becoming more outward looking as a nation. It was at this point that the next stage of Surrealism and Wales was to be birthed. The seed sown in 1965 produced roots which have continued to hold fast until this day. The 1960s was a time when publishing companies produced many art/poetry books, companies like Thames and Hudson and Studio Vista published books in translation from French/German/Italian/Spanish and teenagers hungry to open their eyes, hearts, minds and intellects feasted on these translations. David Greenslade and John Welson were two such hungry teenagers in Wales, neither coming from a background in the arts, they absorbed everything they could. Fifty years later, David Greenslade has published many books of poetry and John Welson has participated in over three hundred exhibitions around the world. But, in the intervening years Surrealism emerged in Wales as force to be reckoned with and Wales and Welsh Surrealists participated in International Surrealist activities.
By the 1970s John Welson was participating in both French and American Surrealist exhibitions as well as organising small shows in Wales. He moved to London for a time and was instrumental in reforming the London Group with Conroy Maddox and Paul Hammond. Whilst showing with the Movement PHASES in London he met both Edouard Jaguer and the painter from Brittany, Jean-Claude Charbonel, they were to remain close friends and celebrate their joint Celtic eye and imagination for decades to come.
In 1986 in Swansea (the Glyn Vivian Gallery) Ian Walker (Newport, Wales) organised a large exhibition called “Contrariwise: Surrealism in Britain 1930-1986”. It travelled to four venues in Britain. Some twelve years later the same venue was to be utilised to celebrate the Czech Surrealists work (including work and a visit by Jan Svankmajer) as well as Welsh artists including Keith Bayliss and William Brown.
During the 1990s John Welson maintained close contact to the Leeds Group and organised a large exhibition at the West Wales Arts Centre in which Conroy Maddox offered a series of lectures. John Welson was exhibiting in Hannover, Germany on a yearly basis and invited a selection of German artists and handmade book makers to contribute to a book in Welsh, the title of which was “Y Bwgan Brain/Die Fogelscheuche”.
Centred around the lustre and iridescence provided by John Welson’s continuing fidelity to the ideas of Surrealism, the start of a new millennium witnessed a more cohesive and structured activity in Wales, both with Surrealists in Wales and Welsh Surrealists participating as a group in international activities. In 2005 the Leeds Group were invited to exhibit at the Granell Foundation in Spain. The exhibition was called “Profound Revelations” and included amongst others John Welson and John Richardson. In 2007 the Leeds Group participated in the Hay Literature Festival (Hay-On-Wye a town in Wales, close to the border with England). John Welson and John Richardson met yet again. John Richardson was about to move to Wales to live and that move was the catalyst for Welson and Richardson to organize exhibitions, publish books, offer talks and jointly create works and participate jointly in international Surrealist publications and exhibitions. John Richardson’s convulsive collages are a revelation as are the publications of his collages that have been published.
At this time Mary Jacob was organizing Surrealist Salons in Aberystwyth. Jean Bonnin was creating mischievous collages and objects - his Banana Meinhoff website is a portal to his Dadaesque world. Neil Coombs (Dark Windows Press, Llandudno) was publishing a series of periodicals under the name of “Patricide” as well as creating large images of faces composed of photographs of disparate objects. Neil Coombs also organised the exhibition “Surrealism in Wales” (the Last Gallery, Llangadog, 2012).
In 2011 Jean-Claude Charbonel and John Welson participated in the two man exhibition “Surrealism: The Celtic Eye” at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth. A true meeting of Celtic inspiration and imagination. In 2014 Neil Coombs’ Dark Windows Press published John Richardson and John Welson’s “Alice, The Looking Glass Threw”, a book of collages and refelctions, “aided and abetted by Alice’s friends from around the world”, which sought to take Alice on a series of new journeys and adventures.
In 2015 John Richardson and John Welson organised the International Surrealist exhibition “Nyth Grug/Heather Nest”, in Rhayader, Mid Wales (this exhibition was opened by the writer Patrick Lepetit, who is currently completing a book on Surrealism and the Celtic Myth) and in 2017, at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre, John Richardson and John Welson organised the large exhibition “Surrealist Murmuration” which consisted of a selection of Domains, one of which was dedicated to Andre Breton’s “Arcane 17” and witnessed the launch of a book celebrating the contemporary relevance of the work (edited by Patrick Lepetit, John Richardson and John Welson, with contributions from Surrealists from around the world). This exhibition was also notable for bringing a large selection of Malcolm de Chazal’s previously unseen works into the public arena.
In 2018 David Greenslade and John Richardson organised the exhibition “Gogoneddus Ych-a-Fi/ Glorious Disgust” in Cardiff, Wales. Through the crystal of Surrealism this exhibition celebrated figures and events of protest and revolt from Welsh history.
April and May 2018 saw the exhibition “Surrealism in Wales: At The Fall Of Dusk” at the Poetry Bookshop, Hay-On-Wye. This brought together works and publications by what Michel Remy, the pre-eminent commentator on British Surrealism, has with some justification called, “The Welsh Tribe”. The show also included an evening of poetical readings from “the Tribe” and a powerful presentation of the Surrealist worldview.
Wales and Surrealism, Surrealism and Wales, all Surrealist activity is international and Welsh surrealists are pearls in the necklace. And this Summer, 2018, witnessed the publication by Jean Bonnin’s Black Egg imprint of “Earthly Kingdoms and Dreamy Knights”, which juxtaposed the poems of Patrick Lepetit and the images of John Welson, in a union of an imagination and freedom that blossoms without boundaries.
Wales, an ancient Celtic land, is celebrated as the land of myth, of poetry, of revolt. Proudly standing in this tradition the Welsh Tribe* have, collectively, plunged to the depths of the unconscious in the search for new pearls and treasures which proclaim our absolute refusal to accept the Miserabilism of everyday life, the world “as is” and, with our liberation of language and image, to reaffirm the overwhelming necessity to continue our subversive adventures, redraw the maps, reveal the Marvellous and re-enchant the world! Declaring our intransigence, we continue to add pearls to the necklace…
John Richardson & John Welson