‘The Moderns’ reassessed

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 5 (Sept/Oct 2011), Volume 19

he twins by Harry Kernoff—one of the well-chosen paintings in the exhibition. (Private collection)

he twins by Harry Kernoff—one of the well-chosen paintings in the exhibition. (Private collection)

Large-scale exhibitions of Irish art are as rare as written art histories of the period so the IMMA is to be commended for tackling the area head on. By their nature such exhibitions present a cartography of the period in question, effectively asserting that their route map is the newest and the best. Both as an exhibition and as a catalogue (available only after the exhibition had finished) this exhibition was big. It was meant to be synoptic and inclusive. It claimed to ‘explain the discoveries, influences and expansion of modernist ideas in Ireland’, asserted that it placed both photography and film as central to the visual arts canon, and informed us that it provided a multidisciplinary context within which we could explore our Irish art history. With the exception of that word ‘big’, none of the foregoing was true.

Irrelevant non-Irish artists

As the subtitle to this exhibition—‘The Arts in Ireland from the 1900s to the 1970s’—inadvertently makes clear,

 

What, precisely, was the influence of Shaw’s snaps.

What, precisely, was the influence of Shaw’s snaps.

this isn’t about Modernism in Ireland but is rather a loose, lopsided history of twentieth-century Irish art (including much post-Modernist work) which actually contains a wide range of artwork that S.B. Kennedy in his much more rigorous book Irish art and Modernism 1880–1950 would have labelled ‘The Academic Tradition’. It also contains much work by non-Irish artists on the pretence that they influenced the Irish ones. In a room devoted to the White Stag Group, for instance, we have the American novelist J.P. Donleavy’s Don’t Mind Me I’m From the New World. The date given is c. 1940, which would make Donleavy roughly fourteen years of age. The work itself is a commercialised blue nude in imitation of the School of Paris. Donleavy is primarily a novelist who didn’t take Irish citizenship until 1967. What on earth is he doing here? Does anyone seriously think that a fourteen-year-old American boy’s daub has any relationship to Modernist Irish art? Ironically, one major aspect of the impact of the White Stag Group, most of whom weren’t Irish, is virtually ignored: their attempt to deal with World War II and the threat of global warfare.

 

In the ‘Surrealist Influences’ room we have a Giorgio de Chirico, but as it is dated c. 1960 it obviously had no influence on the other work in the room, which is from the ’40s and ’50s. In the ‘Tony O’Malley and the St Ives School’ room we have three English artists, including a Peter Lanyon (O’Malley knew the artist) which bears no obvious relevance to O’Malley’s work. There is also a Patrick Heron but one that relates much more to William Scott than it does to O’Malley, and for some incomprehensible reason we have a William Tucker sculpture, and one that is in his very early figurative manner as opposed to the later stripped-back abstractions that made his reputation.

 

or Casement’s supposedly political take on ethnographic images? How does any of this material contextualise Irish art? (Shaw Estate, LSE/National Trust; Casement Collection/National Photographic Archive)

or Casement’s supposedly political take on ethnographic images? How does any of this material contextualise Irish art? (Shaw Estate, LSE/National Trust; Casement Collection/National Photographic Archive)

Shoring up the cultural heritage industry we have Francis Bacon, who may have been born here but regarded himself as a Cockney and who singularly failed to influence Irish artists for decades. Once again, despite Bacon’s preoccupation with war, violence and destruction, these are edited out in favour of portraits. He is, however, used as an excuse to bring in Lucian Freud, and so it goes. Nowhere are we given any hard evidence that any of these people actually influenced the work on show, and there is scant concern for chronology—so much for art history. At times the curators can’t even get simple dates correct. The label beside Henry Moore’s sketch Abstract Figures is dated 1932 despite the fact that it is signed and dated 1940 on the sketch itself!

Film and photography

The IMMA claims that film is central to the visual arts canon; I quite agree—but not in the way that the IMMA seems to think. Its evidence primarily consists of Robert J. Flaherty’s documentary on Aran fishermen, but it is seemingly oblivious to the fact that this is romantic fakery—it’s certainly not Modernist. It also shows Becket’s Film, which even the catalogue essay by Theo Dorgan acknowledges as ‘hopelessly dated now’ but which is also privileged by a separate essay on the film by David Lloyd that tries to persuade us that Becket was heavily influenced by the Belgian painter Van de Velde. So we are being told that a dated film made by an Irishman who spent most of his life in France, and who made the film in France seemingly under the influence of a Belgian painter, is somehow central to the visual arts in Ireland? Let’s be honest—the only reason Becket is co-opted is for the same reason that everyone from Kokoschka and Giacometti to Freud are co-opted: cultural cachet.

We are told that Irish photography should be considered a mainstream practice (though what this has to do with Modernism is another matter!), yet what we are presented with is a mixture of early photojournalism from the Irish Independent, private snaps from George Bernard Shaw, supposed ‘documentary’ images from Roger Casement and highly commercialised fare like John Hinde’s postcards, but—noticeably—virtually no ‘art’ photography.

 still from Samuel Becket’s Film, which even the catalogue essay by Theo Dorgan acknowledges is ‘hopelessly dated now’. (Barney Rossett)

still from Samuel Becket’s Film, which even the catalogue essay by Theo Dorgan acknowledges is ‘hopelessly dated now’. (Barney Rossett)

What, precisely, was the influence of Shaw’s snaps, or Casement’s supposedly political take on ethnographic images? How does any of this material contextualise Irish art? Oddly enough, although we know that artists the world over have frequently worked from photographs, and often taken them, this is a theme that is simply ignored.

Northern Ireland ignored

The section on Modernist Irish architecture ignores Northern Ireland in its entirety (even pre-partition!). So there’s nothing on the Modernist buildings of William Clough Ellis, or the Modernist homes on Belfast’s Malone Road. This is consistent with one of the major manipulations of art history in this exhibition: Northern Irish art is either ignored or downplayed. Aidan Dunne, with quite breathtaking effrontery, dismisses Northern artists of the ’50s in a few sentences, despite its being well known that it was Northerners in the shape of Dillon, Campbell, Armstrong and Co. who provided much of the motive force during that decade.

Rocky landscape with trees (c. 1925) by Mary Swanzy—one of Ireland’s most underrated painters. (Pyms Gallery, London)

Rocky landscape with trees (c. 1925) by Mary Swanzy—one of Ireland’s most underrated painters. (Pyms Gallery, London)

Dillon, just to give one example, is wrongly described as ‘alternating between building work in London and painting in Ireland’, as if he were some part-time bit-part player, whereas he always had a studio in London, even in the ’30s, and made a point of keeping himself abreast of the London galleries.

This anti-Northern bias reaches epidemic proportions when we approach the ’70s and the Troubles. Believe it or not, this museum pretends that artists’ responses to the Troubles are summed up by some straightforward images by Bobbie Ballagh, an atypical sculpture by Oisín Kelly and a small raft of foreigners, especially Americans. Not a single Northern socio-political artist is included, even though there are over 50 of them, including at least eight key players; to add insult to injury, Brian O’Doherty, a Southerner domiciled in New York since the ’50s who belonged to the Conceptual Movement there, and who changed his name to Patrick Ireland, supposedly because he believed that the British should get out of the North, is given pride of place. Did he bear witness to the North like the Northern Irish artists?
Lack of literary contextualisation

And then we come to what passes for the literary contextualisation: just as the IMMA seems to think that curating means putting whatever you can get your hands on onto the walls, it also seems to think that contextualisation means putting an oddball selection of books in cases; and instead of discussing the possible relationships of these works to the art on the walls, one simply stays silent.

The exhibition’s massive catalogue (available only after it had finished)—while there are footnotes to the essays, there is no bibliography, the index only covers artists and illustrations (which are not cross-referenced to page numbers), there is no chronology and, despite three editors, one copy-editor, four editorial assistants and two proof-readers, a number of the essays are written in turgid, often non-grammatical English and there are many, many typos. (IMMA)

The exhibition’s massive catalogue (available only after it had finished)—while there are footnotes to the essays, there is no bibliography, the index only covers artists and illustrations (which are not cross-referenced to page numbers), there is no chronology and, despite three editors, one copy-editor, four editorial assistants and two proof-readers, a number of the essays are written in turgid, often non-grammatical English and there are many, many typos. (IMMA)

As David M. Earle in Recovering Modernism pointed out, dust-jackets and covers are important historical documents. Chronology is obviously important also, as one can track the relationship between the visuals on the books (dust-jackets, covers, illustrations) and the art of the period in question. And equally a representative selection of authors is obviously important. Not for the IMMA, though. Many of the books were missing their dust-jackets; one Seán Ó Faoláin, purporting to be a first edition, was actually a 1970 folio edition (but at least this was corrected in the book/catalogue); and, as one has now learned to expect, not only are a whole raft of major Northern writers left out, but when there is an obvious point of comparison between paintings and literature (say between the work of Seán Keating and the short stories of Frank O’Connor) it isn’t here!One could go on: Claddagh Records, for example, are primarily a traditionalist outfit and certainly not Modernist; Bruce Arnold claims that Ireland had a Fauve in the shape of Phelan Gibb, but he was English and spent most of his life in Paris; Eileen Gray is promoted as the only major designer (despite the fact that she spent most of her time abroad), but surely the Kilkenny Design Workshop was a major player and their archive is only down the road in the National College of Art and Design! Artists like James Coleman, Brian O’Doherty, Michael Craig-Martin, Les Levine, Bill Crozier, Barry Flanagan and Seán Scully, who have either spent little time in Ireland or, like Flanagan and Crozier, aren’t even Irish, are privileged—and so it goes. This book/catalogue and the original exhibition chart very clearly what happens when pragmatism and opportunism distort our art history, consigning to the waste-basket, en route, many of the natural concerns of art history, such as scholarship, accuracy and objectivity.  HI
Brian McAvera is an Irish playwright, art critic, curator and art historian.
Further reading:D.M. Earle, Recovering Modernism (Surrey, 2009).E. Juncosa and C. Kennedy (eds), The Moderns: the arts in Ireland from the 1900s to the 1970s (Dublin, 2011).S.B. Kennedy, Irish art and Modernism 1880–1950 (Belfast, 1991).B. McAvera, Icons of the North (Belfast, 2006).

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