Painting the ‘Distressed Areas’:
Maurice Sochachewsky in the Valleys

Peter Lord on the overlooked work of Maurice Sochachewsky. He argues that his depictions of the Welsh coalfield during the Depression were part of a wider phenomenon of fervent artistic interest in the poverty of the area.


A couple of years ago at a conference in Cardiff about the effects of funding cuts on the arts, I listened in astonishment to a well-known (and prosperous) commentator on painting in Wales enthusiastically espouse the silly idea that deprivation is good for creativity – a hackneyed hangover from 19th-century notions of the tortured artist. It ain’t so, unless you choose to reconstruct the occasional exception into the rule. Artists who can’t afford to buy paint don’t make many paintings. On the other hand, the attraction to modern painters of deprivation as a subject is quite clear, and the urge to identify with impoverished people has often extended to a desire to share their experience, as did Van Gogh when he lived with the coal miners of the Borinage. In 1935, in a Welsh reflection of this endeavour, the painter Cedric Morris stayed with unemployed mining families of the Swansea Valley in pursuit of subjects – ‘all extremely uncomfortable, and filthy food’ he reported back. Morris’s interest was characteristic of attitudes among left-leaning intellectuals in his period. Unlike in the United States, rural poverty – just as desperate as urban deprivation at the time – seems to have remained vaguely picturesque in Wales, but the suffering of unemployed people in the industrialised areas became a mainstream concern for visual artists, as it did for writers, between the two world wars…

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