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New perspectives at the NGI

The National Gallery of Ireland

 

Surely the reopening of the National Gallery of Ireland represents a ray of light, a welcome break in the massed Covid clouds? The gallery has been a cherished part of Irish cultural life more or less since its foundation as one of Europe’s earliest public galleries in 1854. Its very fabric, its exhibition rooms and its developing collections have been points of reference for Irish people, including numerous artists and writers, through the generations. Samuel Beckett was a devoted visitor and he, like countless others, credited the gallery as an invaluable educational treasure. So the fact that it is once more open to visitors must be good news, mustn’t it?

Yes; and then again, no. The Catch-22 is that you are being asked to pay for entry to the opening show, ‘New Perspectives’, a display of acquisitions made over the decade since 2010. Gallery byelaws adopted by the board in 2019 enable the National Gallery to ‘provide for the fixing of fees and charges in respect of entry to any special exhibition or other event held in the Gallery’. But, frankly, it could be argued every exhibition is ‘special’, as is every ‘event’.

You are being asked to pay to see works, gifted or purchased with public funds, that now form part of the Gallery’s permanent collection

Take ‘New Perspectives’. You are being asked to pay to see works, gifted or purchased with public funds, that now form part of the gallery’s permanent collection. This is an ominous expansion of the extant policy of charging entry to expensive visiting exhibitions. That the collection is freely accessible to the public has long been a cornerstone of gallery policy – and of its wide appeal; the principle has been close to the hearts of many of those associated with the gallery over the years, including the significant benefactor Sir Denis Mahon. And it has contributed to the hitherto widespread, egalitarian sense that it is ‘Our Gallery’, not some expensive consumer bauble for the delectation of the better off.

It is more than disappointing that the current board – which, incidentally, includes several artists whom one might expect to know better – is presiding over this drift towards exclusion and exclusivity without so much as a peep of protest.

Aidan Dunne

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Adam’s: 2 June

Jack B. Yeats (1870-1957) In a Dublin Waxworks oil on panel 23 x 35.5cm

Adam’s June sale features an intriguing work by Jack B Yeats. In a Dublin Waxworks was painted in 1912 in the artist’s earlier, illustrative style. At first glance, it appears to show a rather plain-looking woman lying in a coffin with a dagger sticking from her midriff. A young man stands by the coffin looking down with a sorrowful expression. Those of a literary bent may judge it a scene from the conclusion of Romeo and Juliet – albeit featuring a Juliet whose allure is not evident. It was a play the artist knew well from his regular theatre-going and a scene he was to paint more than once. However, the heavily rouged figure in the coffin seems no beauty, and the legs are puzzlingly bare. Closer inspection of a plaque on the side of the coffin tells us that it is actually Marcus Anthony – another victim of a knife wound. What appears to be the top of a woman’s dress is someone’s idea of Ancient Roman menswear. Aside from its macabre theme, the painting has a number of interesting aspects to it. Yeats visited the old Dublin Waxworks in Henry Street in 1905 and made a sketch of this rather unconvincing looking Roman hero. The painting emerged in 1912, two years before the waxworks was burnt down. So, the painting has a historical significance as a glimpse of a lost Dublin institution. It came from the collection of the late Garech Browne and hung at his home at Luggala for many years. It was also shown at the ‘Yeats in the Municipal Gallery’ exhibition in 1959. This most unusual and historical work is guiding at €60,000 to €80,000.

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De Veres: 22 June

John Shinnors Scarecrow Portrait – 10 2001 oil on canvas 91 x 91cm

The scarecrow is one of John Shinnors’ most abiding motifs. The painter traces its origin to the unhappy summers he spent as a child on an uncle’s isolated farm in rural Co Clare. Wandering around a neighbour’s land one evening, he came upon a life-size mannequin in a copse – dressed in women’s underwear. This striking and surreal encounter stayed with him. The impact was associated by the impressionable child with the scary stories of banshees that his uncle liked to recount in the evenings. The loneliness, isolation and occasional terror he felt back in those days was transmuted many years later into the eerie, quasi-heraldic images we see in his eighteen Scarecrow Portraits. These paintings were first shown at the Limerick City Gallery in 2002. Each of them measures a substantial 91 x 91cm and although any one of them could pass as a stand-alone painting, the artist stipulated that they be hung together as a set. There’s little suggestion of the traditional scarecrow. The dark, resonant portraits, many with black holes for eyes, are suggestive of some tortured Everyman with occasional hints of Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series. The playful ‘no birds’ sign in Scarecrow Portrait 2 is a rare instance of levity. Scarecrow Portrait 4 depicts a sheaf of corn – indicative of what a scarecrow guards, and also suggestive of the scarecrow-like Wren Boys who used to favour straw costumes. Shinnors is somewhat of an outsider in contemporary art so it’s tempting to see this recurring scarecrow motif also as a playful essay in self-portraiture. A visit to the National Self-Portrait Collection in the University of Limerick adds fuel to this hypothesis. His wonderfully lit and slightly sinister self-portrait features a sharp triangular nose. The very nose that you see in Scarecrow Portraits 9 and 10. This assemblage of eighteen paintings has a guide price of €60,000 to €90,000.

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Art and the Nation State: The Reception of Modern Art in Ireland

Róisín Kennedy
Liverpool University Press, 2021
pp 304 illustrated h/b
£90/€115 ISBN: 978-1-78962-235-5
Brian Fallon

At just over 300 pages, this book seems to me a very useful summing-up of a faction-laden subject and an even more faction-laden period, or rather periods. Ireland, though small in terms of population and even smaller in terms of galleries and art centres, appears at times to be almost as argumentative about the visual arts as it is (or used to be) about literature and the theatre. The problem is that literature has had a head start in virtually all fields of creativity – almost everyone reads. Nevertheless, there are obvious signs that this bias is changing and my own view is that Ireland is now entering a much more art-conscious era.

The cliché that we are an unvisual people is surely as dead as the Arian Heresy and can safely be buried, or cremated, along with similar negative myths. Irish art is now treading closely on the heels of literature and may even, inside a generation or less, take the lead. Adequate teaching, adequate facilities, sound state support and, above all, regular exposure to visual culture in its many and varied forms, have already changed whole areas of what, for lack of a less clichéd term, I can only call the National Psyche.

True, we had good artists in the 19th century, we had good ones too at the turn of the 20th, but to look for a national school still seems a dubious venture. Possibly the nearest approach to one was created by our remarkable stained-glass artists – Clarke, Geddes, Healy, Hone – but it scarcely lasted more than a generation. (Jack Yeats, while unarguably a genius, left no obvious tradition.) Still, it is beginning to happen.

The early years of the Free State produced art which was solid rather than exciting, and Irish Modernism really began with the Living Art Exhibition in 1943. Róisín Kennedy is right, however, in calling attention to the official rejection of a Rouault picture around this time. It provoked a strong reaction and, in retrospect, mattered a good deal more in the scale of things than the faded controversy about Dublin Corporation’s purchase of a rather inferior Henry Moore bronze, almost two decades later. This is ancient history now; what is still vivid in the minds of many is the succession of Rosc exhibitions which, while very much tied to the outlook of their time, were still an epochal event and did much to open the eyes not only of the public, but of Irish artists as well.

It is one of the few obvious defects of this densely factual book that the huge exhibition ‘ART USA NOW’, mounted in I964 at what is now the Hugh Lane Gallery, receives rather cursory treatment. (On me, at least, it made an even stronger impact than any of the Rosc exhibitions did.) However, Róisín Kennedy has packed a dense amount of art history into her single volume, and the depth of her research is formidable. A work of reference for art-conscious people to keep within easy reach.

Brian Fallon is an art critic.

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Stags and dragons

Curraghmore House nestles in a valley carved out by the little River Clodiagh, amid a demesne of some 2,500 acres of forest, farmland, avenues, gardens and exotic trees, all unspoilt by modern accretions. The home of Henry Nicholas de la Poer Beresford, ninth Marquis of Waterford, and his family, it was until recent years a rather private place, little visited except by country-house aficionados.

Curraghmore has been home to the same family for at least six centuries, the name changing only once, through marriage, from Power to Beresford. The Powers descend from Henry le Poer, a Pembrokeshire knight granted a large estate in Co Waterford by King John in about 1200. The Curraghmore branch became dominant among his descendants in the 15th century and successive heads of the family ruled east Waterford as if it were their private fiefdom. Ennobled as Barons le Power and Coroghmore, they were tamed by the Tudors, rode the tide of religious upheaval under the Stuarts (rising to become Earls of Tyrone in the process) and ended the 17th century as staunch Protestants. The Civil Survey of 1654 records, ‘There stands a fayre castle and a goodly stone howse upon the land,’ together with an orchard, a meadow, a ‘fine wood’, and a bridge (still there) and mill on the river Clodiagh. Letters in the archives speak of major work being done at the house in 1666 and again in 1700.

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Bare beauty

Norman McCloskey Driftwood, Lough Leane 2013 giclée archival print 120 x 90cm

 

Sometimes Kenmare-based landscape photographer Norman McCloskey sets out with ‘a pre-visualised idea of an image that I want to make at a specific location in certain conditions’. More often than not, though, he will head out to local surroundings around the south-west of Ireland with a sense of exploration, hoping that the light will inspire him on the day. Among his influences are English photographer Jem Southam and American photographers Ansel Adams and Joel Meyerowitz. ‘[Southam] had a direct and very definite impact on me,’ he says. ‘[He showed] that I needed to work in a landscape I had a real connection to and affinity with – rather than travel all over searching for locations.’

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Sculpted icons

Anna Campbell Stilt Horses bronze 2018 100(h) x 65(w) x 29(d) cm

 

Inspired by birds and other familiar animals including horses, hares and bulls, Anna Campbell’s work is usually domestic in scale and characterised by her knowledge of form and her skill in rendering colour and pattern. In works including Hen, Campbell has distilled the essence of birds’ shapes into a tactile, rounded form that clearly has its origins in carving. In her majestic Heron, the polished-bronze skull complements the blue-grey patterned surface of the folded wings (Fig 4). On first glance, it is hard to believe that both elements are bronze and that the surface colour is the result of chemicals applied during the patination process. In these works and others, including I Spy – a striking black crow with a golden eye, inspired by the birds that roost at the end of her garden in Co Down – Campbell elevates her subjects to icons and reminds us that in many ancient cultures birds were both worshipped and feared.

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Towards eternity

Denis Farrell Red Red Ricochet 2019 oil on canvas 76 x 61cm. Click on the image to view full painting

 

In philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith’s recent book, Metazoa, on the emergence of minds in nature, he discusses the proposition that if environmental circumstances indicate larger scale as an advantage for a species, more than one evolutionary path is open to that species. Obviously, animals might progressively get bigger as natural selection plays out. And it is easy to think of examples. Less obviously, perhaps, there is another path: groups of small, distinct, modular units that possess scale through mass. It is a kind of minimalist solution to the problem of scale and, once you think about it, examples are plentiful in nature.

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Photographer Richard Mosse

Still from Incoming #88

Irish artist Richard Mosse’s latest work made the New York Times list of top exhibitions recently. On view at the city’s Jack Shainman Gallery, ‘Tristes Tropiques’ (sad tropics), a title borrowed from a memoir by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss) shows the devastating impact of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.

Using GIS (geographic information system) equipment and a drone-mounted multispectral camera that detects nuances in soil and vegetation, Mosse deploys the very technologies used by those ravaging the forests. His vibrant large-scale photographic maps overturn usual conventions of colour and meaning in order to, in his words, ‘disarm the viewer’ and provoke reflection on the impact of humans on the landscape.

Meanwhile, Fondazione MAST in Bologna, Italy’s international centre for art and technology, is hosting a major survey of Mosse’s work. Among more recent series featured are Infra, in which he repurposes old military infrared film to document conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Heat Map, which subverts the military-grade surveillance cameras used to control borders and refugee camps in order to create an alternative visual topography of human displacement and hardship. The ‘terrible beauty’ running through his work is critically and visually compelling – it combines documentary with a highly aesthetic manipulation in order to ‘make the unseen visible’ and create beautiful images that evoke complex, uneasy responses. ‘Richard Mosse: Displaced’ runs in Bologna until September.

In Ireland, Mosse’s video installations Incoming and Grid (Moria) are showing at the Butler Gallery in Kilkenny from June and are one of the highlights of this year’s Kilkenny Arts Festival.

From Kilkenny and now based in New York, Mosse has been awarded a 2021 remote residency with Arts at CERN. Previous honours include the Prix Pictet (2017) and the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize (2014).

Stephanie McBride

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Gilded Planes

Nature is an abiding source for Maighread Tobin and her new series of paintings reflect her engagement with natural sculptural forms, writes Niamh NicGhabhann

Cluster 2019 oil on gesso panel 35 x 28cm

Maighread Tobin’s body of work reflects joyful variation. As an artist, she has worked across different media and forms, from her etched slate sculptures to the playful, rolling shapes of her Rhythm, Cloak and Embrace, 1999, rolled-metal triptych at Dublin’s Civic Theatre. In conversation with the artist, it is clear that this diversity of media and forms reflects her own wide-ranging influences and interests. Her most recent works are oil on gesso board and are informed by her passion for the natural world, by travel, by long-standing traditional artistic techniques, and by a school of nature painters that includes Tony O’Malley, Charles Tyrrell, Michael Canning and William Crozier. Tobin’s work is balanced between pure abstraction and figuration. It remains connected to the physical world while leaning towards the creation of abstract pattern, repetition and rhythm. For Tobin, moving from a mostly monochromatic palette in her sculptural work into painting was akin to experiencing an ‘explosion of colour’, and she is drawn to the reds, rusts, and yellows of volcanic terrains, as well as deep, vibrant blues and greens that recall stained glass or landscapes at dusk. She lists travel, the physical experience of landscapes through hill-walking and gardening, as well as medieval art and textile patterns from across the globe as continually informing her practice.

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