WEEKENDER: Delight and despair over art in Newport
10:02am Saturday 5th October 2013 in News
IT IS a bitter irony that on the same day hundreds of Newport schoolchildren got to enjoy up close the quirks and delights of a work by one of Britain’s greatest artists, the city endured the destruction of another, more public, piece of art.
The deceptive, vibrant simplicity of LS Lowry’s Francis Street, Salford was studied first hand by pupils at Glan Usk primary, one of 27 lucky schools across the UK to take delivery of a painting for a day, as part of a project called Your Paintings: Masterpieces in Schools.
But while five- and six-year-olds were gasping “it’s the Lowry!” in delight as they entered their school hall, barely a mile away Newport’s Chartist Mural was being unceremoniously bulldozed.
An act of cultural vandalism? Very possibly.
Debate on the artistic merit of the mural has raged, and will undoubtedly continue to rage, as will that about whether it was right for Newport council to throw up its collective municipal hands and say ‘it’s too expensive to move it, let’s tear it down.’
Or words to that effect.
Nobody doubts that Newport city centre needs an economic shot in the arm. Many people believe the proposed Friars Walk shopping centre is the means by which to administer it.
A goodly number believe the mural should have been moved, rather than condemned, and after Thursday’s demolition, doubts are being voiced about the claims – backed up or not by an expert report – that it would have been too expensive and too difficult to try.
An even goodlier number it seems, have been appalled by the way the council acted on Thursday. One comment on the Argus website called it “demolition by stealth” and that seems a fair description.
There had been a considerable amount of anger expressed at the proposal to demolish the mural, and at the recent decision by Cadw not to award it listed status.
A protest was planned for Saturday, an event some social media chatter had labelled an “insurrection.”
Perhaps the council thought that by demolishing the mural before Saturday, it could draw the sting of dissent, and by the way, also minimise the prospect of disruption to the city’s food festival.
Whether or not this is the thinking behind Thursday’s shabby pre-emptive strike, it will not have worked. There is an appetite out there for a public voicing of anger today that the Chartists would likely have been proud of.
And so, back to Lowry. Newport Museum and Art Gallery bought Francis Street, Salford the year it was painted, 1957, with the oil barely dry on the canvas, at a time when it was, according to blurb received by this newspaper this week, focusing on improving its modern art collections.
It cost £15. In 1957, £15 was a fair sum, around £306 in today’s money. Given the 39cm x 49.3cm painting is today likely to be worth well into six figures – though there is no desire to make public an estimate – it appears to have been a damned good investment.
I am not suggesting the Chartist Mural was worth anything like such a sum, or that artistically it measures up to the Lowry.
But both are/were works of art, admittedly very different except for one crucial aspect.
Each of them teem(ed) with life, in all its mundane, vital pride and glory.
I do not know whether the pupils of Glan Usk primary school ever had the opportunity, in or out of school, to visit the Chartist Mural.
If they did, or had they done so, based on their responses to Francis Street, Salford, I would wager that they would have been amazed, delighted, curious and hungry to learn more – about the work itself, and the ideals of the movement that inspired it.
Alas they, and countless other youngsters, no longer have that opportunity. Clearly, there is no enthusiasm for maintaining civic modern art collections these days. Yes, there may be very well be another artwork commissioned by which to remember the Chartists. The council has more or less promised as much, though given the way the arts generally are being dumped on, don’t hold your breath.
But one thing is for sure – whatever form it eventually takes, it will always be regarded by many in unflattering context to a previous work that was, in many people’s eyes, unnecessarily and clumsily destroyed.
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