The unveiling of a sculpture by Albert Power (1881-1945) in 1935 afforded a golden opportunity to an unidentified photographer. The location: Galway’s Eyre Square; the statue: writer Pádraic Ó’Conaire; the officiator: Éamon de Valera. The photographer, positioned at just the right angle, caught a rain-sodden Dev towering over the people of Galway, while eyeing suspiciously the stone image of the man he had known – which in turn seemed to tower over him. Light and dark, large and small, adult and child, life and art; everything coincides to make it a compelling image. The overt interconnection between politics and art in the photograph speaks volumes about Albert Power, who was essentially a political sculptor – a sculptor for the Irish nation.
Born in 1881, the same year as Picasso, Fernand Léger, Natalia Goncharova and, more pertinently, German sculptor Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Power shared none of the Modernist elements evident in the work of these artists. If he had done so, his sculptures would have been rejected in the Ireland of that era. Whereas, having followed the traditional training for an Irish sculptor at the time – classes at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art coupled with an apprenticeship – and exhibiting his first work at the RHA in 1906, he was subsequently widely commissioned for portrait and ideal work, as well as monumental and architectural pieces.
Power was to create something of a hall of fame (although the work is not gathered in one such place) of the key political and cultural figures of the day, creating a visual record of the era
Power was nationalist to the core and, while still too young and inexperienced in 1900 to receive the Dublin Parnell monument commission, which went out of the country to Augustus Saint-Gaudens, it was to him that the young state would turn for representative portrait work between 1922 and his death. Power was to create something of a hall of fame (although the work is not gathered in one such place) of the key political and cultural figures of the day, creating a visual record of the era. His significance in Irish sculpture is captured in the many obituaries published at the time of his death, which, like the Irish Times, describe him as an ‘outstanding native sculptor’. However they also acknowledge him to have been a man of ‘attractive personality’, who was ‘human in his sympathies’. Expressions in Nationhood in Bronze & Stone presents the human, the political and the artistic sides of the sculptor.
A new publication on Irish sculpture is welcome and there is no doubt that Síghle Bhreathnach-Lynch is the person best placed to write the monograph on Albert Power. Her research on the sculptor dates back to her post-graduate years in Art History in University College Dublin and she has already published several articles and catalogue/dictionary entries on him and his work. Somewhat unusual in the context of an Irish sculptor, considerable archive material relevant to Power and his work remains extant today. This has enabled Bhreathnach-Lynch to offer a rich account of the sculptor’s career in a book that is well illustrated, notably with images of the sculptor at work, which are always rewarding, and with comparative imagery, which is always informative.
Paula Murphy is Professor Emerita, UCD, School of Art History and Cultural Policy.