Visual Politics: the Representation of Ireland 1750-1930, Fintan Cullen. (Cork University Press) ISBN 185918 023 X

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (Winter 1997), Reviews, Volume 5

For most people, historical knowledge is constituted by the oral and the visual. The oral tradition transmits a sense of tradition and belonging creating an identity which is buttressed by visual representations which help lodge potent images in the mind. Both oral and visual traditions are essentially backward looking, helping form a link with the past in an effort to deal with the present and soften the future. This does not mean that such traditions are necessarily conservative or reactionary. The paintings of the German artist Anslem Kiefer are a deliberate antidote to the manipulation of German history and the myth of a ‘ground zero’ situation after 1945. Indeed, when the vast majority of German historians abdicated the responsibility of confronting the history of fascism, it fell to artists such as Beuys and Kiefer (and composers such as Stockhausen) to worry at the scabs of history in the interests of historical truth. By confronting the myths of German history in paintings such as Varus (1976) Kiefer attacks the cultural myths which fed the catastrophe of national socialism. In doing this, Kiefer is in a tradition stretching from Goya to Picasso.
The trajectory of art criticism, since the uncoupling of art from its symbiotic relationship to religion after the waning of the middle ages, has been to locate art in the autonomous domain of the aesthetic thus separating it from truth and silencing art as a moral voice. This separation is typical of the modern age and expresses itself elsewhere—historical studies, for instance—in the face-value distinction and the primacy of the scientific method. But it is the further twist to the tale, the categorical separation of art from life and the elevation of the aesthetic to the highest act of reason, which sets art off from other forms of discourse and makes the reconnecting of art to life all the more difficult. But aesthetics aside, the neglect of art as a discourse and language has been total, not only by historians but by the academic world in general. Joep Leerssen has pointed to the importance of literature in the formation of national identity and Fintan Cullen in this book stresses the link between the creation of cultural identity and painting. Painting, until the late nineteenth century, was representational. Whether taking the form of portraits, landscapes, or historical allegories, paintings had a recognisable subject matter. The contemporary viewer may have shared Kant’s adage that ‘the beautiful is that which pleases without concept’ but the job of understanding art involves uncovering the social and economic conditions within which a work of art can exist as well as the conditions of the aesthetic experience and the social construction of taste.
Fintan Cullen sets himself the task of uncovering how Ireland has been defined visually in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. This is a history of the representation of a culture, its people, politics and social conditions, and is a field of study which has been badly neglected in this country. The reasons for this neglect are connected to the fracturing of the indigenous tradition in art and its replacement with artistic forms designed to celebrate the colonial power. Cullen points to the subtlety with which the establishment proceeded in not simply ignoring the symbolism of pre-conquest Ireland by integrating it into a new consensus. The decoration of St Patrick’s Hall in Dublin Castle, commissioned by the Lord Lieutenant in 1788, is a case in point. Here the Italian artist Vincent Waldre painted a series of panels merging Irish and imperial history with the emphasis on the benefits to be reaped by Ireland from imperial rule. Images such as those in the castle were, by the eighteenth century, confined in their impact to the better off. Unlike the stained glass, frescos and paintings which decorated the churches and palaces of the middle ages, art had already lost its ability to communicate to a universal audience. In Benjamin’s terms, art had lost its ‘aura’.
But visual representations still retained a crucial role in a society which was largely illiterate (and we are not just talking about the Irish-speaking dispossessed here) and Cullen points to other forms of representation which were less than innocent. Landscape painting, which flowered in the nineteenth century celebrated the taming of nature and linked this with the landed class. Here a transitory and ramshackle social order is given spurious timelessness and authority in the face of the reality of social turmoil. By the middle of the last century, the battle of contesting images was joined. The influence of European romantic nationalism was seen in the proliferation of Celtic motifs, such as round towers, wolfhounds and ancient heroes designed to repair the link with a fractured and imagined past and portray an imagined landscape of historical continuity disrupted by oppression. Such images filled the pages of newspapers, journals and broadsheets dedicated to the national cause. The other side of this coin was the Victorian representation of the Irish as the repressed ‘other’ as in the cartoons of Punch. The sometimes benign representation of the Irish peasant at home in Ireland is replaced by the representation of the Irish immigrant as feckless, idle and immoral. The visual image of the Irish in nineteenth century England (and to an extent also in the USA) can be summed up in the words of Matthew Arnold:
the Irish race are deeply tainted with barbarism; that they know little of the obedience to law; that they are the slaves to passion and feeling, and by consequence deficient in the highest qualification of human nature.

In post-independence Ireland the scene shifted once more. Painters such as Keating focused upon local images of national identity and nationhood. Others, such as Paul Henry carried on the tradition of romanticism in landscapes which dominate their inhabitants and those espousing abstract art turned their faces away from what they saw as the stifling provincialism of the Free State. Cullen’s book ends with the formative period of the Free State. Much has changed since then, not least the role of art in society. Since Adorno it is widely accepted that art can no longer be socially formative and there is no accepted basis for communication between artists and their audiences. At its most extreme this position would argue that as there is no tangible social need for art, no use value, its exchange value totally determined by an anarchic market and uncontrolled speculation. This is not to say that art has lost its link with society but that is has become fragmented and increasingly isolated. Perhaps the two most interesting trends in Irish art over the last two decades has been the emergence of a socially coherent group of female artists willing to confront the realities of Irish life and the work of those Northern artists formed in the crucible of conflict. But even the increasingly cosmopolitan nature of Irish art, its integration into international trends, will also be someday of historical significance in the context of the loosening of the traditional bonds of nationalism and localism. This book is welcome, not least because it opens the debate on the relationship between art and society and deals a blow to the narrow academicism which still disfigures Irish scholarship.

Jim Smyth


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