De Vere’s Irish Art Auction on 26 March features an important work by Mainie Jellett. Two Elements, an early cubist piece, was painted in 1924 shortly after Jellett returned from Paris with Evie Hone. They had gone there to study cubism, initially under André Lhote. Cubism at that time was divided into two schools: those like Lhote who wished to retain the representational link and begin with conventional subject matter such as a landscape or a still life; and those like Albert Gleizes who abandoned the subject in favour of greater freedom for the artist. Gleizes prioritised design, colour and rhythm. Jellett and Hone were attracted to the latter school and abandoned Lhote to join up with Gleizes as students. Two Elements is one of her very early expressions of this new style. It was exhibited in Dublin in 1924 in her first exhibition following her return from Paris. However, Ireland wasn’t ready for cubism. The response was a barrage of hostile criticism and universal derision. The buyer of this painting will not just be acquiring a strikingly attractive image but will also be the owner of a significant piece of Irish art history. We have moved on since 1924; most of Jellett’s highest prices have come for these abstract cubist pieces. Her sole six-figure result at auction came for a painting called Abstract Composition which sold for €102,214 at Sotheby’s in 2006. Two Elements, a slightly smaller piece in a similar vein, is guiding at €40,000 to €60,000.
The buyer of this painting will not just be acquiring a strikingly attractive image but will also be the owner of a significant piece of Irish art history
A very similar piece, Composition: 2 Elements, painted in 1925 was sold at de Vere’s for €36,000 in 2016. It will be surprising if Two Elements doesn’t readily surpass its guide price. Another notable piece at de Vere’s is Jack B Yeats’ Tralee (€120,000-€160,000) – painted in the same year that Mainie Jellett produced Two Elements. Yeats’ work is a gentle romantic painting in his pre-expressionist style, probably of Tralee’s ship canal although his catalogue raisonné doesn’t specify. It would certainly have been looked on more benignly back in 1924 than Jellett’s work.
John P O’Sullivan