Monday, December 17, 2007

Snap! in Newport

In 1971 a mixed media exhibition entitled Snap! arrived on tour at Newport Art Gallery. It featured work by, amongst others, Gerald Scarfe, David Bailey and David Hockney. The exhibition had already been a big success at the National Portrait Gallery in London. But in Newport things would be much different.

A councillor, Clive Venn, had decided to prevent three satirical drawings by Gerald Scarfe from being shown. According to him two of them were no better than "lavatory wall art" and the other was disrespectful to former Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

When Gerald Scarfe got wind of this he left his Chelsea home and headed straight for Newport. Who were these politicians to sit in artistic judgement of his work he quite understandably wanted to know? His drawings made up approximately one quarter of the exhibition and if three of them weren't going to be shown then NONE of them would.

When he arrived at the gallery a big row ensued. Gallery workers refused to take down his pictures. An enraged Scarfe headed out to Woolworths to buy himself some screwdrivers - he would remove them himself! When he got back the cops had turned up. They listened to both sides of the argument and concluded that the works were the artist's property and he could do whatever he liked with them. Scarfe removed his pictures.

Meanwhile the relevant committee at Newport council held an emergency meeting. Peter Jones, a member of the Welsh Arts Council turned up to plead Scarfe's case. According to Jones he was made to wait for ages, then given a mere ten minutes to discuss the issues. He was treated "like a lackey and an errand boy" he said. The Council decided that the exhibition should continue without Scarfe's pictures.

Ultimately it was the Welsh Arts Council who closed down Snap!. They arrived with two furniture vans and dismantled the entire exhibition, much to the bemusement of the general public who were in the gallery at the time still viewing it.

So, what were these drawings that Newport Council were so keen to prevent their citizenship from seeing? Well, one was a portrait of artist Aubrey Beardsley; another, Women's Liberation Front, depicted a naked woman sporting a spectacular phallic erection; Harold Wilson and the Gnomes of Zurich, showed Harold being shafted by one of the aforementioned gnomes.

Oddly enough I once interviewed Gerald Scarfe and asked him about this very incident. I wondered if he bore a life-long grudge against Newport and the Welsh? As I recall he seemed quite philosophical about the whole business - the exhibition ended up touring other parts of Wales he said and anyway it was all good publicity. So there you go.