Towards a Cultural Irish Republic

Published in Issue 1 (Spring 1998), News, News, Volume 6

In his opening remarks to this conference held in January 1998 at NUI, Cork, organiser Dermot Keogh stressed the relative neglect of art as a historical source. At a time when academy art in the new state was traditional and antagonistic to the modern, many painters—in particular many women painters like Evie Hone and Mainie Jellett—sought to challenge society with their bold espousal of new styles. By examining the role of the artist in the new state, it was possible to challenge generalisations about Irish society being conservative and resistant to change. Many members of the Irish artistic community in the 1930s—and particularly during the war years—were innovators. He referred to the work of Louis Le Brocquy and to the White Stag Group to illustrate the strength of a tradition of lack of conformity.
Hilary Pyle described Jack B. Yeats’ political development as a Home Ruler, a separatist and as an anti-Treatyite. Although living in Devon before independence, he chose Irish subject matter for his work, focusing mainly on life in the West of Ireland. Returning to Cosgrave’s Ireland, his style developed to become ‘paintings of national life’, later moving from representation to his more abstract style. Yeats remained the sympathetic observer—many of his paintings capturing the most revealing moments of human existence.
Richard Hurley spoke on the development of Irish church architecture in the twentieth century. Prior to Vatican II, church architecture had witnessed the death throes of the two major influences on its development—Gothic revival and Classic revivalism. Both of those styles had emerged after Catholic Emancipation in 1829 as opposing ideas, representing the kind of building most suitable for worship, giving birth to the idea that the Catholic Church had no particular style of building. The documents issued by Vatican II added great strength to the modern movement in church architecture, particularly the theology of assembly as set out in the constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. The Dumus Ecclesia alone was sufficient to point the way to a new image of church building, one which was very much more domestic in scale than anything that had gone before. It was the uniting of the form of the building to the image of the community which related to the mission of the church in the world. That characterised the best of modern church architecture. However, the monumental image which had been inherited from the Middle Ages proved difficult to shake off in Ireland and achieving a more suitable image took many decades to realise. Stressing the unevenness of church architecture in post-Vatican II Ireland, Hurley was critical of the decision in the 1960s to build very large churches and low cost churches in urban areas.
The sculptor, Imogen Stuart, spoke personally of the development of her art in Ireland since the 1950s—singling out two sculptors for particular praise, Seamus Murphy and Oisín Kelly—and illustrated the contrasts in her use of different mediums—wood, stone, bronze, copper, stained glass, steel and terracotta. Her style was rooted in medieval art and in German art of the Barlach tradition. There was a need to provide sculpture for public places. For example, she had constructed in wood—with the help of a very talented woodwork teacher—a beehive hut which might be placed in airports, offices or universities as a place where people might wish to sit down and recollect themselves in surroundings which were pervaded by the sensual smell of the wood and cut off from the bustle outside. The idea, based on the practice of the Irish Celtic Church, might become popular, she suggested.
Andy Bielenberg lectured on ‘Images of state-building: Seán Keating and the Shannon Scheme’, a theme familiar to readers of his article on the same subject in the Autumn 1997 issue of History Ireland. On ‘Transforming tradition: modern Ireland and the art of the possible’, Suzanne O’Shea emphasised developments in the visual arts in Northern Ireland. James Cronin spoke on ‘Revising the Past: patronage and art in the Honan Chapel’.
This was the first in a series of conferences examining the relationship between art, the artist and the making of Irish society. The next one, in autumn 1998, will be on the theme ‘Ireland and the art of Commemoration’.
Enquiries: Gabriel Doherty [co-organiser] (021)-902783.

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