4 months ago

Artistic License: Helen Hooker O’Malley

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A new retrospective on the 20th-century American photographer Helen Hooker O’Malley shows her fascination with Irish people and Irish life …

The National Library of Ireland’s National Photographic Archive and the Gallery of Photography Ireland have jointly curated “A Modern Eye: Helen Hooker O’Malley’s Ireland” which is presented in two complementary exhibitions in the two Temple Bar venues. Hooker O’Malley’s frequent subjects were scenes of urban and rural daily life and portraits of artists and friends. The Director of the NLI, Dr Sandra Collins shares her insight into the formidable female artist.

Tell us a little about Helen Hooker’s background and her love of Ireland?

Helen Hooker O’Malley was born into a wealthy American family in 1905, and travelled widely throughout her life. Her first exhibition was in 1929, showing paintings she had produced during a stay in Russia, and over her lifetime Helen’s creative practice spanned painting, poetry, sculpture, and theatre and interior design.

Her fascination with Ireland began when she met Irish revolutionary and writer Ernie O’Malley in America in 1933; they fell in love and married in 1935, despite her parents’ disapproval. Although she and Ernie divorced in 1952, her love of Ireland endured, and we can see it throughout the compelling photographs of people and places across the country.

What are the themes running through this retrospective exhibition?

Tanya Kiang and Trish Lambe in the Gallery of Photography Ireland and Nikki Ralston in the National Library of Ireland, have worked with the artist’s son Cormac O’Malley to create a striking exhibition about a formidable female artist.

In both venues, the photographs demonstrate the modernist impulse to elevate everyday life to an important artistic subject. The Gallery of Photography focuses primarily on the early work from 1935 onwards, including images of the Irish landscape Helen encountered with her husband, and her observations of rural life, particularly in Mayo. The National Library’s collection of photographs dates largely from a remarkably creative period in the 1970s. These black and white images range from Dublin city life to thoughtfully observed details of heritage sites and the forms and patterns of landscape, and include strikingly intimate portraits of close friends and strangers.

Where and how did she work?

Like Virginia Woolf, Helen needed a “room of one’s own” – she set up a studio for herself wherever she was based, including one at Burrishoole Lodge in Mayo, and later in a mews in Ballsbridge in Dublin. Often, her creative practice was influenced by her activities and social circle. Living in Mayo, she observed local locations and subjects, including the seasonal cycle of agricultural life; collaborating with friends in Ireland’s creative communities, she was active in interior design, and in theatre. In the 1960s, she began writing poetry as a kind of reflection on her life, and was at her most productive in the 1970s, when more than half of her sculptural work was created.

Do you have any favourite images in the exhibition ?

My favourite photographs are Helen’s portraits of artists. She creates a luminous intimacy that shares something private with the viewer. I love her photograph of Mary Lavin laughing – they were great friends from the day of Ernie O’Malley’s funeral on March 27 1957, both American by birth but adopted Ireland as the country they loved. To me, the portrait conveys the vivacity of their friendship and their strong personalities.

Need To Know: “A Modern Eye: Helen Hooker O’Malley’s Ireland” will run in the NLI’s National Photographic Archive, Meeting House Square, Temple Bar until November 2; and in the Gallery of Photography until September 1, 2019. See www.nli.ie and www.galleryofphotography.ie for venue opening hours.

Penny McCormick

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Main image: Courtesy of Helen Hooker O’Malley Roelofs Sculpture Trust, University of Limerick

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