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Art in Ireland since 1910


Fionna Barber


London: Reaktion Books, 2013

Hardcover. 318 p. 226 ill. (222 in colour). ISBN 978-1780230368. £29.00


Reviewed by Peter Murray

Crawford Art Gallery, Cork



Well-written and trenchantly argued, Fiona Barber’s Art in Ireland since 1910 is a welcome addition to the growing number of books detailing Irish art history in the twentieth century. Once considered a country with a poor tradition in the visual arts, Ireland is now more accurately portrayed as a thriving centre for painting, sculpture, print-making and other art forms. Written from a broadly Marxist viewpoint, Art in Ireland is a polemical work, one that argues for an appreciation of Irish art as an identifiable, discrete and homogenous phenomenon. Barber does not have much patience with the claims of Modernism to be a universal art movement, transcending national boundaries. She applauds Dorothy Walker’s attempts to ‘read’ abstract paintings as visual texts referring to political and social realities. However, Barber’s identification of Irish art as a phenomenon separate and distinct from European or American art of the same period is problematic. Throughout the twentieth century graduates of Irish art schools often continued their studies in Paris or London. Some of the best lived and worked more or less permanently abroad, rarely returning to Ireland. The most highly-rated Irish painter of the Post-Impressionist period, Roderic O’Conor, settled in France when he was twenty-six years of age. It is tempting to compare O’Conor with the writer James Joyce, who also spent most of his life in France. However, while Joyce used his exile to evoke an image of Ireland in words, O’Conor created memorable images of the landscapes and people of France. In the 1970’s Michael Farrell also left Ireland and settled in Paris but his work retained a strong, almost obsessive, interest in Irish society and politics. During the Second World War, many artists from Europe sought refuge in Ireland, contributing greatly to the vitality of artistic life. Barber does not discuss the fluidity with which artists moved between European cities, nor the sustenance afforded to many who worked in institutions overseas. These are awkward loose strands in a story that seeks to chart, as parallel and inextricably linked, the search for political independence for Ireland and the search for an art that contains its meaning within that framework.

The term ‘post-colonial’, used repeatedly in the book, also creates a problem in that many of the artists featured are from Northern Ireland, an Irish province extensively colonised during the seventeenth century and one that today remains part of the United Kingdom. Precisely which part of Northern Ireland is post-colonial is not specified, nor is the term defined. Barber begins her narrative with an evocative description of Dorothy Cross’s 1999 art work Ghost Ship. This ambitious project involved the artist painting a redundant lightship, Albatross, with luminescent paint, towing the vessel a mile or so out to sea and leaving it moored for several weeks, as a homage to sea-farers and in remembrance of times past. Barber’s narrative focuses on this as a symbol of national identity and independence, without mentioning the fact that throughout the twentieth century the lightships and lighthouses guarding the Irish coast were administered from Trinity House in London. Cross’s Ghost Ship is in fact a much more subtle allusion to the complexities of Ireland’s political and social history in the twentieth century. Similarly, while it is convenient to refer to Louis le Brocquy’s Head of the Blessed Oliver Plunkett in terms that evoke the martyrdom of this Irish prelate, hanged, drawn and quartered by the English in Drogheda in 1690, le Brocquy was drawn to this subject-matter when he learned that the Celts of ancient Europe are thought to have been head-hunters, who delighted in making pyramids of the skulls of their enemies. As an artist, Le Brocquy sought to reveal a more universal pre-history of mankind, an aspect that raises it above specific narratives of Irish politics and society.

Barber writes well, her narrative carrying the reader along without difficulty, but she also makes sweeping generalisations, such as describing twentieth-century changes, as “unprecedented in Ireland’s history, including a shift away from ideas of the land and the sea as dominating a sense of Irish identity and towards an increasing concern with the urban and the modern”. There are several misapprehensions here, not the least being that Irish people were traditionally seafaring, or that urban living had not already grown apace during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It would be easy to forgive such misapprehensions, were it not for the relatively unforgiving slant of Barber’s introductory chapter, where she treats as outmoded or uncritical the work of academics who have pioneered the study of Irish art history. A danger lies in selecting only those works of art that contribute to a selective account, or a partial history. Barber chronicles the beginnings, around 1900, of a sense of independent cultural identity, underpinned by artifacts and styles. However this in fact begun over a century earlier, with the phenomenon of Irish writers, artists and musicians enjoying success and celebrity in London being well-established in the days of Thomas Moore and Lady Morgan. At the end of the nineteenth century, the search for an independent identity for Ireland was closely linked to the art and artifacts of the Celtic period. However not all such artists were political separatists; some hoped that Celtic revival would encompass Wales and Scotland, and indeed England, and assist in the regeneration of the United Kingdom. A vigorous assertion of regional and national identities had occurred throughout Great Britain and Ireland from the eighteenth century onwards, and was by no means automatically tied to separatist movements. In the early nineteenth century Walter Scott had popularised the concept of vibrant regional identities, but was careful to locate them within the context of the political union.

Barber begins her narrative in 1910, and so does not have to deal overmuch with the extraordinarily fertile period of the Celtic Revival. She sets out to chart the period “during which Ireland became a modern independent nation”, describing Ireland’s nationalism as isolating, in a way that Britain’s was presumably not, nor Roosevelt’s. Again, the reality of what artists actually portrayed can be used to support different views of the world. Paul Henry is considered to have represented the soul of the Irish nation through his images of blue lakes and rugged mountains in Connemara. However, his art can be closely parallelled in contemporary representations of Arizona and New Mexico, or of the Canadian Rockies by the Group of Seven, or of the Scottish islands by the Colourists. Ireland was, in essence, not so different from other countries, and the problem with attempting to create an historical narrative that isolates one country from its context within the world is that it can fall into the trap of replicating those narratives of difference that justify a colonial mind set in the first place. The notion that Ireland became a ‘modern’ nation only with independence is questionable, and to assert that Irish people moved away from an interest in the land as part of political independence, avoids the vibrant lives of Irish cities that had been long established. It skirts also the reality that that same flight, from country to city, was echoed during those same years in Britain and even more so in the United States, neither of which were newly independent.

That said, Barberdoes a fine job of indentifying and documenting much of the best art produced in, and about, Ireland from the first decade of the twentieth century to the first decade of the present century. Her selection of artists is unerring and her discussions invariably thought-provoking. She examines in detail important works such as Gerard Byrne’s New Sexual Lifestyles and Shane Cullen’s Fragmens sur les Institutions Républicaines; she looks at the relationship between art and the Troubles in Northern Ireland, at the influence of feminism, and on role played by non-Irish artists such as Richard Hamilton, who courageously tackled controversial subject matter in his work. This is a book to read over several times, even if some of its premises and arguments are debatable. Well-designed and comprehensively illustrated, in keeping with the economics of present times, Art in Ireland since 1910 is printed in China.


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