Word and Image: The Second Modernist Network Cymru Conference
National Library of Wales/Aberystwyth School of Art, 12-13 September 2017
Chair, Modernist Network Cymru (MONC)
On 12-13 September 2017, over 40 academics, curators, artists and enthusiasts gathered at the National Library of Wales to explore the connections between word and image in a range of modernist texts from Wales and beyond. The conference, the second organised by Modernist Network Cymru (MONC), had two aims: firstly, to bring together those engaging with (or making) literature and the visual arts; secondly, to bring those working on Welsh modernism into dialogue with works from other nations. The theme of Word and Image seemed a perfect way to bring together these different strands, not least because word-image crossovers seem especially pertinent to the art and literature of Wales. We could think of figures such as David Jones, Brenda Chamberlain and Margiad Evans who worked across art and literature, whether in poetry and painting or short stories and illustration, or texts such as Chamberlain and Alun Lewis’s Caseg Broadsheets, which juxtaposed modern poetry with experimental woodcuts. More recently, the photographer Aled Rhys Hughes and the Welsh National Opera have both produced multimedia responses to Jones’s prose poem In Parenthesis.
It was thus with great anticipation that the committee awaited the arrival of delegates on a stormy Tuesday morning in the National Library of Wales. Within a few minutes, the conference nerves subsided: the delegates were so enthusiastic and friendly that the area outside the Drwm was soon filled with excited chatter. On the first day, we were treated to two sets of parallel sessions with subjects ranging from intersections between word and image in art by Ray Howard-Jones (David Moore) and Ceri Richards (Peter Wakelin) and in literature by Nina Hamnett (Faith Binckes), Virginia Woolf (Helen Tyson) and W. B. Yeats and Franz Kafka (Luke Thurston), to processes of adaptation and translation in the work of Salvador Dali and T. S. Eliot (Roula-Maria Nassif Dib) and Pascale Petit and George Szrites (Antony Huen). I chaired an extremely engaging panel on Illustration which ranged across David Jones’s frontispiece and tailpiece for In Parenthesis (Tom Bromwell), T. S. Eliot and Edward McKnight Kauffer’s collaboration on the Ariel Poems (Jack Quin) and Graham Sutherland’s illustrations for David Gascoyne’s Collected Poems 1937-42 (Sean Ketteringham). Across the three papers and the subsequent discussion, I was struck by the intriguing methodological and terminological questions posed by the panellists: what is the relationship between text and image in an illustrated book? Which one comes first? Can we even identify a simple, linear chronology? Ketteringham’s reference to Hana Leaper’s concept of ‘interruptions’ (as opposed to illustrations) was especially thought-provoking in this regard.
These thought-provoking discussions continued into our public roundtable event, ‘The Future of Art History in Wales’, generously supported by the Learned Society of Wales and the Aberystwyth School of Art, who provided a wine reception. This wide-ranging discussion, expertly chaired by Peter Wakelin, touched on issues of recovery, placing Welsh art in an international context, the role of national and regional galleries, the scarcity of funding, the importance of education, and the connections between art history and contemporary artistic practice. The panel was made up of art historians, curators and practising artists, with some of our speakers occupying several different roles: as such, it was interesting to get varied perspectives on these complex and often political questions. Iwan Bala, an artist and PhD student, warned against art history for history’s sake: for him, art education was crucial because it helped young artists to create art today. It was a lively and at times feisty discussion: my only regret was that there was not time for more questions. Several members of the audience were bobbing up and down in their chairs in their desire to speak, but we were at least able to continue the debate over wine in the exalted surroundings of the Aberystwyth School of Art.
Day 2 dawned blustery and bracing, and ushered in another packed day of talks. The day began with the second instalment of our ‘Adaptations and Translations’ strand, featuring papers on ASJ Tessimond and Dawson Jackson’s cinematic poetry (Imogen Durant), the WNO’s In Parenthesis (Jennie-Rebecca Falcetta) and Carl Andre’s plastic poetry (Betsy Porritt). The panel was pitted against a session on ‘Landscape, place and identities’, a pairing which proved a headache for many delegates (myself included), as each looked so attractive. In the end, I opted to continue the focus on Welsh art from the previous evening and learn more about Welsh postwar abstraction (Nick Thornton), interactions between painting, poetry and landscape in W. S. Graham and Peter Lanyon’s work (Neal Alexander) and John Piper’s photography for John Betjeman’s Shell Guides (Paul Cabuts). There were interesting intersections among all the papers, especially around themes of land, language and naming.
The first sessions were followed by our keynote, ‘Ways of Seeing: R. S. Thomas’s Response to Modernist Painting’ by Professor Tony Brown (Bangor University), also generously supported by the Learned Society of Wales. Professor Brown’s keynote beautifully bought together many of the conference’s main concerns: issues of translation, adaptation, ekphrasis and collaboration. It was full of intriguing nuggets, such as the observation that R. S. wrote poems in response to Impressionist paintings in order to find his way out of a period of ‘poetic dryness’. Professor Brown’s passionate performances of R. S.’s late poetry, including his response to Picasso’s Guernica, were profoundly moving, and have prompted me to spend more time with the poet since.
Refreshed by a hearty lunch in the Library’s Pen Dinas café, we gathered for our final two parallel sessions on ‘Historical Influences’ and ‘Practitioners’. The latter panel interrogated word-image interactions in contemporary visual art and creative writing from the perspectives of two of Wales’s leading artists (Iwan Bala and Ivor Davies) and a prominent figure in contemporary Welsh Surrealism (Mary Jacob). The former panel explored the diverse ways in which modernist writers and artists David Jones (Francesca Brooks) and Wyndham Lewis (Christopher Lewis), and the anti-modernist, popular writer Berta Ruck (Rose Simpson), all drew on the past to combine word and image in the present. As with many of the panels, surface differences between the papers led to a surprisingly coherent discussion session, touching on themes of authenticity, national identity, and politics and aesthetics.
For me, it was these discussion sessions which made the conference such a success, whether in the formal Q&A slots after panels or in the more informal chats over coffee, lunch and wine. I came away with many more questions than I had when I started the conference, but in the best possible way. The papers I saw and the people I spoke to challenged my rather simplistic existing assumptions about the relationship between word and image and the interactions between literary and art history more broadly. I came away feeling enthusiastic and intrigued, if rather pleasantly perplexed. We all agreed that there is far more work to be done in interrogating the complex and ever-shifting collisions between the visual and the verbal: we hope to continue this work in an edited collection.
Perhaps one of my favourite moments from the conference, though, was on the train journey home: seated alongside three academics living and working in England, they all remarked on how much they enjoyed learning more about Welsh modernism in literature and the visual arts, and that the conference had prompted them to think about how they could introduce more of it in their own teaching. MONC is not solely devoted to the study of Welsh modernism, but it felt wonderful to be able to help spread enthusiasm for writers and artists like David Jones, R. S. Thomas and Ceri Richards. In our troubled and insular present moment, this kind of international co-operation, collaboration and mutual exchange is more important than ever. On this note, we were delighted to welcome our first two overseas speakers to the conference, one of whom was working on Welsh modernism. Within Wales itself, many of us felt that the current plight of art history in Wales had parallels with the campaigns for the teaching and study of Welsh Writing in English: I hope that the two disciplines can continue to speak to and learn from each other, both at MONC events and further afield.
Word and Image: The Second Modernist Network Cymru Conference was organised by Elaine Cabuts (Amgueddfa Cymru/Aberystwyth University), Elizabeth English (Cardiff Metropolitan University), Lucy Jeffery (University of Reading), Amber Jenkins (Cardiff University), Luke Thurston (Aberystwyth University), Emma West (Cardiff University) and Diana Wallace (University of South Wales). We are grateful to our conference sponsors the Learned Society of Wales, Aberystwyth School of Art, Edinburgh University Press and Paul and Elaine Cabuts, as well as for the help and support given by Elen Rees and colleagues at the National Library of Wales.
For more information or to join MONC, please visit https://modernistnetworkcymru.org.