Arthur Giardelli: Painter steeped in the avant-garde who used found objects to evoke the forces of nature

The painter Arthur Giardelli was steeped in the work of the European avant-garde and brought to his adopted Wales, where he settled in 1947, a passionate belief that art transcends national boundaries, however firmly rooted it may be in the local and particular. He did more than any other artist to promote the work of his contemporaries, among whom were David Jones, Josef Herman and Ceri Richards, largely in his capacity as chairman of the influential 56 Group, which transformed the public perception of art in Wales with its many exhibitions and tireless lobbying of such bodies as the Arts Council and the National Museum.

His own work, to which he was utterly devoted during a long career as a maker, consisted mainly of relief constructions, abstract in form and fashioned from a variety of materials, both man-made and natural, such as slate, brassware, cork, wood, glass, timepieces, string, sacking, shells and paper from old books. These "found objects" were arranged and embellished so as to evoke the passing of the seasons, the wind's energy and the movements of the tide. They bring to mind the Dadaists and the collages of Kurt Schwitters, and belong to a tradition that flowered in the 1950s with the arte povera movement in Spain and Italy.

Like Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona and Alberto Burri in Italy, both younger than he, Giardelli found his inspiration in what he could pick up on the beach or in secondhand shops. The result is often breathtaking in its formal elegance, revealing not only the innate beauty of flotsam and jetsam but also a metaphysical delight in discarded objects which has to do with time, space and the mystery of human life. The film made about him by BBC Wales in 1967 was aptly entitled See What the Next Tide Brings.

Although closely identified with art in Wales, Giardelli was born in Stockwell, London, in 1911, and brought up in Surrey, the son of an English mother and a father of Italian extraction, both schoolteachers. His grandfather had fought with Garibaldi for the liberation of Italy before emigrating to Britain; his father, mocked at school on account of his surname, had chosen to become "more English than the English" and detested all thought of Italy, much to his son's chagrin.

At Hertford College, Oxford, Giardelli took a degree in Modern Languages and, at the Ruskin School of Art, where he received his only training, wrote a paper on Botticelli's illustrations for The Divine Comedy with the help of a book lent him by Kenneth Clark. His love of Dante, Villon, Racine and Ronsard made him (despite his dyslexia) the most literary of painters and, macaronic in his conversation, he never tired of quoting such lines as Phèdre's "C'est Vénus tout entière à sa proie attachée" ["It is Venus completely attached to her prey"] or Francesca's description of how she and Paolo had come to commit adultery: "E caddi come corpo morto cade" ["And like a corpse fell to the ground."]

The cosmopolitan-minded Giardelli had first discovered Wales in 1928 when his parents leased a cottage at Amroth in Pembrokeshire. The beaches, estuaries, coves, rock-pools and seascapes of the Dyfed coast held a deep fascination for the young man, preparing his mind for that subtly poetic observation of the natural scene which was to surface years later in his paintings and collages. But it was in Merthyr Tydfil, confronted by a very different, industrially ravaged though visually exciting landscape, that he decided to commit himself fully to his art. "When the train finally pulled into Merthyr," he once told me, "I felt I'd come home".

The Harvey Grammar School at Folkestone, where Giardelli taught French and English, had been evacuated to Merthyr in 1940. In the same year he registered as a conscientious objector and lost his job as a consequence. He had been a pacifist ever since hearing Gandhi speak in Oxford some years before. This crisis in his personal affairs was to be the making of him as an artist. Befriended by Quakers, he and his wife and their two small children were given accommodation at Trewern House, the Friends' Settlement in Dowlais, and work was found for them as lecturers and musicians – she played the piano well and he the viola. Shortly afterwards Giardelli took up a post as music teacher at Cyfarthfa Castle, one of the town's grammar schools. Even more importantly, it was in Dowlais, the old iron township high on the hill above Merthyr, that he made the acquaintance of Sir Cedric Morris and Heinz Koppel, both of whom encouraged him to concentrate on his painting.

After the war the Giardellis moved to Pendine in Carmarthenshire, where Arthur began a long and fruitful association as a lecturer with the Workers' Educational Association and tutor in the Department of Extra Mural Studies at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. Never neglecting his own work as a painter, he now threw himself into the politics of the art scene in Wales, displaying an altruism rare among practising artists.

He was one of the founders of the 56 Group and was elected its chairman in 1959, a position he held until 1998, after which he was made Life President. From 1965 to 1975 he served on the Art Committee of the Welsh Arts Council and became a leading member of the Contemporary Art Society for Wales. Lecturing took him on extended tours of the Netherlands, Egypt, Russia, China, the United States and Nepal, and between 1977 and 1980 he served as a member of the Calouste Gulbenkian inquiry into the economic situation of visual artists in the UK. It was in Holland that he first saw the work of Mondrian and, on his return to Pendine in 1955, had begun making abstract collages from found materials.

For his work on behalf of the arts in Wales Giardelli was awarded an MBE in 1973 and made an Honorary Fellow of University College, Aberystwyth, six years later. In 1986 he was awarded the Silver Medal of the Czechoslovak Society for International Relations. His work was bought by the Tate Gallery, the National Museum of Wales and private collectors on both sides of the Atlantic. Among his most supportive patrons was the collector Eric Estorick of the Grosvenor Gallery in Dover Street, London, who in 1965 gave him a one-man exhibition and promptly bought everything in it, followed by another at his new premises in South Molton Street in 1987. A final accolade was the publication of a lavishly illustrated book containing the text of Giardelli's conversations with the art critic Derek Shiel, which served as a precursor to a retrospective exhibition of his work at Penarth's Washington Gallery in the summer of 2002.

Arthur Giardelli was an accomplished conversationalist and also a good listener. A religious man, he was generally eirenic in his attitude to other artists but could deliver some caustic opinions about public bodies in Wales when he thought their policies were not generous or effective enough. What he lacked in inches he made up in intelligence, enthusiasm, energy, wide knowledge, modesty and a delicious sense of humour. He had a great gift for hospitality and friendship, liking nothing better in his latter years than to receive visitors, whether old acquaintances or casual callers, at his home, The Golden Plover, near Warren in Pembrokeshire, a former schoolhouse which he and his second wife, whom he called Bim, had made into a studio and exhibition space for their collection of modern art.

The house is set in a district which will for long be closely associated with his art. "We in Pembrokeshire", he told Tony Curtis in Welsh Painters Talking (1997), "look into the setting sun. And when you look into the setting sun across the sea you are looking into a magic and a mystery – your eyes are dazzled by it... we watch the sea swallow that ball of fire, the sun." It was Arthur Giardelli's achievement to have revealed for us something of that magic, that mystery, and to have allowed us a glimpse of the complexity of his own inner landscape.

Meic Stephens

Vincent Charles Arthur Giardelli, painter and teacher: born London 11 April 1911; Tutor in Art, University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, 1958-78; Chairman of the 56 Group Wales, 1959-1998 and thereafter Life President; MBE 1973; married 1937 Phillis (Judy) Evelyn Berry (marriage dissolved, one son, one daughter), 1976 Beryl (Bim) Mary Butler; died Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire 2 November 2009.