by Gordon Kingston, Heritage Action
“Thinking about Picasso always means being caught in the trap that is the category of the individual, being seduced by the modern idea of the artist as genius. The main symptom of this is the predominance of biographically inspired writing about the artist, an approach that constantly emphasises the artist’s self-determined nature, isolating him from his contemporaries and, crucially, seeking to tie ‘the meaning’ of every work to a life event…”
– from ‘The Picasso Book’ by Neil Cox (Tate Publishing 2010)
I was also thinking – about this statement – when I visited the dolmen at Bodowyr. It’s a persuasive line of reasoning, one that might also be applied to our regular, compulsive routine of fitting ’meaning’ to the features of ancient art, or monuments; when that seductive trap becomes an irresistible dish, a hegemony in effect, of symbolism (as impulse). How often do we try to ‘tie the meaning’ of a monument to thoughts that are prompted only by a shape? He (later) continues;
“..:authentic experience eludes us in everyday life; creative ideas come from unexpected and inexplicable directions, often outside the self; our individual prejudices can stand between us and the achievement or understanding of the highest kinds of art;..”
Even when considering the work of an artist who has lived in our time and about whom so much is known, it would be vain to pronounce a conclusive solution to any riddle of stimulus. How much more vain then, if the riddle concerns the stimuli behind a five thousand year old construction?
To the eye that more modestly looks for images here (and how different is that pursuit, in practice?), the quartz hangs in droplets on the stones, like the drizzled water on the rails outside – the capstone itself, supported by three (of an original four) uprights, has the scaled contours of a peak in the massive mountain range that the chamber opens towards. Inside, on the surfaces to the rear of that eastern opening, but more ephemerally, suitably perhaps, sheep wool trails white and wispy, like the strands of an ancient beard. In this setting, the inevitable ‘offering‘ of colourful pebbles feels as presumptuous an act, somehow, as putting a sticker on ’Guernica’.
According to Frances Lynch (’Gwynedd‘ HMSO 1995), Bodowyr, like nearby Ty Newydd and Ty Mawr, has the typical structure of an early passage grave – in this case, a polygonal shape with the putative passage indicated by a sill-stone – and would originally have been covered by a cairn. It is also part of a tighter, yet varied, collection of local prehistoric monuments that includes, inter alia, the earthwork of Castell Bryn Gwyn and the two huge standing stones at Tre‘r Dryw (these latter, the remains, if one is to credit early antiquarian accounts, of an imposing, ditched and banked, circle of between eight and twelve monoliths).
The Reverend John Skinner visited the area in 1802 and his account of Bodowyr, reproduced by George Nash (’The Architecture of Death’ Logaston 2006), is both interesting and, in the context of my initial paragraph, a humbling example of resistance to the circean feast;
“Here we were gratified of a very perfect cromlech standing in a field to the north-west of the house. The upper stone terminates in a ridge like the roof of a building and measures seven feet four inches long, three feet deep and four wide: this is sustained by three supporters, each three feet in height and nearly the same in thickness. That cromlechs were not always used (if they were at all) as altars for sacrifice I think may be demonstrated by the one before as its Pyramidical form is by no means adapted to the purpose. Indeed there is a tradition amongst the Welsh that this rude memorial was erected over the grave of a British princess named Branwen who flourished in the year of the world 3105!!! [a date derived by those who believed in a literal theory of creation].”
The site of the legendary princess’ repose is more usually identified with the Bronze Age round barrow of Bedd Branwen, but here, nevertheless, is the particularly apt (for the dolmen of Bodowyr) quote from ‘The Mabinogion’ (Everyman 1949);
“Then she looked on Ireland and the Island of the Mighty, what she might see of them. ‘Alas, Son of God,’ said she, ’woe is me that ever I was born: two good islands have been laid waste because of me!’ And she heaved a great sigh, and with that broke her heart. And a four-sided grave was made for her, and she was buried there on the bank of the Alaw.”