Visual Arts: Regarding RICHARDS; Ceri Richards Is Widely Acknowledged as Wales' Most Important Artist of the Mid-20th Century. but How Good Is the Founding Father of Welsh Modern Art? Critic Dr Peter Wakelin Examines the Evidence

Article excerpt

Byline: Dr Peter Wakelin

THE reputations of artists follow strange pathways. All too often, those considered masters in their lifetimes are forgotten after death as fashions change.

The avant garde becomes the `old guard' in an instant.

But gradually fashion is replaced by history, and artists are assessed more clear

y.

A generation after his death, Ceri Richards is returning to prominence.

With the publication of the first monograph to survey the full range of his work, and a major exhibition devised by the National Museums and Galleries of Wales, it is now possible to see him as among the great painters of the 20th cen t ury.

He was perhaps the British artist who most fully grasped the breakthroughs of Picasso and Matisse, and he possessed the brilliance to match their miracles of visual imagination. But above all it is his draughtsmanship, in everything from the smallest sketches to major paintings, that bears witness to his sheer talent.

His marks are loose, unreal, almost frenzied, yet they express perfectly the forms they are describing.

Even Henry Moore said of him, ``More than any other painter of his time he understood three-dimensional form and knew how to express it on a flat surface''.

In one sense Richards was not one artist but many: he was so diverse in his output, like Picasso, constantly exploring and investigating new themes. Many of these themes became deeply personal in meaning, and he visited and revisited them for decade upon decade. It is as if they were touchstones for him, with the power to reinvigorate his imagination. They emerged from his up-bringing amid music, poetry and drama in the chapel community of Dunvant where he was born, and later influenced by his poet-friends from Wales, Vernon Watkins and Dylan Thomas.

For the current exhibition at the Martin Tinney Gallery in Cardiff, Martin has assembled not just a collection of impressive works, but a representative selection of almost all of Richards's visual preoccupations.

Perhaps most beautiful is the pianist theme, which Richards constantly returned to for four decades, inspired by the music in his home.

These pictures are deeply musical and tenderly familial.

A succession of them range from the barest of melodic outlines in masterly abstraction to dark and dense wash drawings and the important, richly coloured, Matisse-like oil painting Girl at the Piano (1950). Pianist of 1947 swoops with rhythmic shapes.

The whole profile of the piano has been emerged, its turned legs and reading stand elegantly described in arabesques.

Several pictures in this exhibition are studies for major works in national collections, or are closely-related developments of them.

There is a sketch for the famous Swansea Deposition of 1958.

Music of Colours: White Blossom (1954) is a version of the large painting at the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery in Swansea from the Vernon Watkins poem yet it anticipates it by more than a decade. …