Becoming Modern

Simon Grennan and Christopher Sperandio

Arddangosfeydd | 9 Chwefror 2008 - 12 Ebrill 2008

'Becoming Modern' premiers work by Simon Grennan and Christopher Sperandio alongside works by Cezanne, Degas, Monet, Morisot and Pissarro from Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales. Grennan & Sperandio examined the 1909 diaries of Gwendoline and Margaret Davies, to produce composite images of scientific diagrams, fashion plates and pattern, that pose questions around artistic authenticity and originality.

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Becoming Modern
New paintings on the occasion of Gwendolyn and Margaret Davies visit to Italy, Spring 1909 Impressionist and Post Impressionist art from the Davies Bequest

Simon Grennan and Christopher Sperandio
Paul Cezanne, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot and Camille Pissarro

Becoming Modern premiers eleven new paintings by Simon Grennan and Christopher Sperandio, which show alongside six major works from the Davies Bequest, Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales.

The exhibition focuses upon Gwendoline and Margaret Davies, whose extraordinary art collections were bequeathed to the National Museum of Wales in 1951 and 1963. Commissioned by Oriel Davies to make new work about the Davies sisters, artists Grennan & Sperandio researched travel journals kept by Gwendoline and Margaret during their Italian trip in the spring of 1909.

In March and April 1909, Gwendoline and Margaret travelled to Italy’s great Renaissance cities - Pisa, Florence, Assisi, Siena, Perugia, Bologna, Venice - in search of artistic and cultural knowledge and experience. The sisters’ journals reveal their thoughts and deliberations: on the art and historic sights they witnessed; on travel (by car, train, carriage and gondola), hotel rooms and shopping; on the poverty they encountered; on life, death and religion.

Extracting phrases from these journals, Grennan & Sperandio have used the sisters’ words from almost a century ago as the springboard for a new series of paintings. The artists also focus upon 1909 as a turning point in history, when Europe was experiencing great change and the growth of modernity. The resulting paintings are vibrant and puzzling composites which weave together historic and contemporary imagery, scientific diagrams, fashion plates and pattern. These pictures have not been painted by the artists themselves, but instead have been rendered in oil paint on canvas by a team of anonymous workshop painters following Grennan & Sperandio’s directions.

Grennan & Sperandio’s paintings hang alongside six superb Impressionist and Post Impressionist works collected by the sisters - two views of Venice by Claude Monet, a landscape by Paul Cézanne, paintings by Berthe Morisot and Camille Pissarro, and a bronze sculpture by Edgar Degas. Seen together, this juxtaposition of contemporary and historic work poses compelling questions around artistic authenticity and originality, the birth of modernity, truth and meaning in art, and our 21st century view of art from the past.

The Davies sisters as art collectors
The works on display are a small selection of those bequeathed to Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales by Gwendoline (1882-1951) and Margaret (1884-1963) Davies, the granddaughters of David Davies of Llandinam. Principally formed during the years 1908 – 1924, they amassed an outstanding collection, thecornerstone of which is a major group of Impressionist and Post Impressionist works. It is significant, particularly within the context of this exhibition, that their maturity as collectors occurred during the watershed period of the years directly preceding the First World War when the wider world – and the sisters themselves – became ‘modern.’

Like many wealthy young women of the period, the sisters’ art history education took place within a culturally-defined framework of taste and value - knowing what to look at and why it was ‘good’. Yet as their confidence grew they displayed a marked independence from received aesthetic judgement, becoming increasingly progressive and personal in their choices. Landscape was their main focus, and of the works on display here today, the views of San Giorgio Maggiore by Claude Monet were some of the very first Impressionist pieces they purchased in 1912. The Cézanne Provençal Landscape was acquired in 1918, when the sisters became two of the earliest collectors of Cézanne in Britain, and whose work led them to Maurice de Vlaminck and other contemporary European artists. Examples of the figure-based works in the collection are the Degas Dressed Dancer, Study which was based on a dancer at the Paris Opera Ballet, while At Bougival by Berthe Morisot represents the type of more intimate, timeless figure-based pieces they preferred to acquire, in contrast to the classic depictions of modern Parisian life that characterise many Impressionist works.

In 1925, Gwendoline wrote that ‘the great love of collecting is to do it yourself – with expert opinion, granted, but one does like to choose for oneself’, a philosophy that formed one of the earliest and most extensive collections of late 19th and early 20th century French art in Britain.

Supported by the Gwendoline and Margaret Davies Charity and the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation. Becoming Modern is part of Celf Cymru Gyfan-Artshare Wales, Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales’ visual arts partnership programme. The exhibition has been made possible with the support of the Gwendoline and Margaret Davies Charity and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.

Essays & Reviews

A taste for modernity: the Davies sisters as art collectors
Essay by Bryony Dawkes from ‘Becoming Modern ’

The Space Between: Historical Misrecognition and the Truth in Painting
Essay by Chris Townsend from ‘Becoming Modern ’

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