One of two major exhibitions running at Cardiff’s National Museum Wales this autumn onwards, The Rules of Art? takes a radically different approach to how the museum’s collection is displayed. Pulling together works from a range of disciplines, genres, countries and time periods, The Rules of Art? Is essentially a remix exhibit: names and titles you know and love – and some you don’t (yet) – juxtaposed with deliberate care and detail. The result is a refreshing stimulator for the eyes and brain, especially for those who’ve not seen an exhibition in a while.
The rationale comes from the hierarchical grouping of genres in art, originating in 17th Century France: History Painting, Portrait, Scenes of Everyday Life, Landscape and Still Life. Unlike today, where our post-modern sensibilities have all but discarded such distinctions or boundaries in any facet of culture, the art world was once far more rigid in what it deemed to be ‘important’ subject matter. What’s a nice painting of a bowl of fruit compared to a dramatic Biblical scene or a portrait of a minor royal?
This was also the case for the artists themselves. You don’t need to be an art history expert to walk into most galleries and museums with classic works on display to notice that white, male and western names drown out the competition. And it still is the case, to a certain extent, particularly when it comes to geographical origin.
This is one area – one of many, in fact – in which The Rules of Art? really shines. With contemporary names from a range of backgrounds (from Africa to homegrown Welsh) put alongside older, European masters like Rembrandt and Picasso, that hierarchical thinking becomes flattened – as does our sense of history itself. Works are not only arranged in each room by the categories listed above but grouped together based on more specific themes: a maudlin painting of grieving Victorian women hangs right alongside a modern photograph of Welsh girls in similar, gothic garb; a typical Gaughin still life overhangs a ceramic installation of assorted crockery on a table.
This approach not only collapses our idea of time and place when thinking about art but reinvigorates the familiar. Exiting a three-screen video installation displaying, in startling, visceral quality, the manmade horrors of our oceans – pollution, slave trafficking and whaling – you come immediately face-to-face with a stormy Turner seascape. Suddenly, the beautiful turbulence of the painting becomes even more stomach-churning.
For those after a veritable chocolate box assortment of fantastic and sometimes challenging art, National Museum Wales‘ The Rules of Art? is a one-stop feast. The power of inventive and bold curatorship couldn’t be better represented than it is here.
National Museum Wales, Cardiff, Sat 23 Oct.
words HANNAH COLLINS