The Grand Tour You Haven’t Heard About

How sublime.
How sublime. // Yale Center for British Art

“Art in Focus: Wales,” the Yale Center for British Art’s most recent exhibition, has been entirely curated by students within just eight months. Though it may be smaller than the museum’s usual showings, the Wales exhibition has the flow and sense of a sonatina, traveling from theme to theme with few hiccups.

The show, featuring English depictions of the rugged Welsh landscape in the 1700s and 1800s, breaks down along several subtopics. According to Art in Focus Coordinator Rebecca Levinsky ’15 and student guide Katharine Spooner ’16, these are meant both to help communicate historical context and make the exhibition accessible to viewers.

One such thematic grouping is Travel and Tourism. Sketching tours became something of a fad among 18th- and 19th-century Englishmen either bored with a passé Grand Tour or else scared off by the political unrest in Europe at the time. Diverted to Wales, they found plenty of material for their pens, brushes, pencils and aquatint plates. Wales turned out to be a convenient touchstone, since its towering landscape — all grays, hills and crags — embodied the Romantic mindset of the artists on display, satisfying their zest for the exotic while allowing them to travel within a reasonable distance.

This exhibition is the tale of several interweaving histories: the development of the Welsh mythology, most memorably distilled in the figure of the Bard; the migration of English artists to a Wales once considered barbaric; the transformation of innocent Nature into a teeming source of artistic imagination, a symbol of darkness, imperialism and sublimity, softened here and there by more familiar, domestic scenes — a house, a mill, a lake.

The curators explicitly make mention of this balancing act, one of their themes being Burke’s idea of the “sublime” versus that of the picturesque. This focus is very much in keeping with the spirit of the Center for British Art, which gives us Constable’s shepherds and watermills alongside Turner’s sprawling vaporous masterpieces. The latter in fact turns up in “Art in Focus” — one of its finest selections is a waterscape by Turner, “Harlech Castle, from Tygwyn Ferry, Summer’s Evening Twilight.” Though one of the lesser known Turners in the YCBA’s holdings (as one guide quipped, “The YCBA is the one place where you can find Turners in a storage facility”), the painting’s soft undertones and glimmering surfaces demand a second look.

The Student Guides have done hard work in curating the exhibit, and it shows. The subject poses several challenges, all nimbly navigated: foremost, it goes beyond the scope of what a student exhibition might normally take on, pursuing for its topic not just a single artist or brief moment in art-historical time, but rather a history that spans across multiple disciplines — the fine arts, poetry, travel writing.

The preeminence of travel writing and the artists’ sketchbooks as mediums of choice means that much of the material related to this annal of art history is contained in books. The advantage of these sketchbooks is their spontaneity; the limitation is that the pages can’t be turned. The curators have judiciously chosen a few texts from the Beinecke as well as the Center’s Library of Rare Books and Manuscripts to testify to the importance of the sketchbook. So that these are not dwarfed by the large oil paintings, the curators spotlight a number of “off-the-cuff, en plein air sketches” and watercolors, as Levinsky puts it. One such work is “Capel Curig,” an understated watercolor by David Cox. The painting contains only a few forms, all in varying shades of gray — mountains, lake, clouds and cliffs — and a little white form that almost escapes notice; this is the chapel. Scattered across the watercolor are small indentations, perhaps caused by actual precipitation, as Levinsky conjectures. It’s in works like these that we see an artistic and migrational movement very far from vacation painting: these works capture the essence of Wales, and very well may include droplets of it.

“Art in Focus: Wales” opens this afternoon at the Yale Center for British Art. The Student Guides and Coordinator who curated the exhibition will give an introductory talk at 4:00 p.m. on the second floor where the exhibition is, and a reception will follow in the Library Court at 5 o’clock.

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