8 months ago

Artistic License: The Birth of Modernism in Irish Art

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Curator DAVID BRITTON tells us more about this groundbreaking exhibition taking place at Dublin Castle …

© Estate of Jack B. Yeats, DACS London/ IVARO Dublin 2019

As curator of this exhibition what was your starting point?

I was delighted when Mary Heffernan, General Manager of Dublin Castle, approached me last autumn about curating an exhibition for the gallery space in The State Apartments of the Castle. Mary and I discussed various themes for the exhibition which would have to appeal to both visitors to Dublin and the local audience alike. I spent a lot of time going through the rooms, which have high ceilings, some with ornate plasterwork, trying to envisage various artworks on the walls below. After further discussion we decided to explore the arrival of modernism in Irish art and the prominent role women artists played in its development.

Norah McGuinness

Irish Modernism came about at a very turbulent time politically and is quite à propos given our current situation …

Here we see ourselves yet again breaking away from the United Kingdom and although we still remain part of the EU we will again be left isolated on the western fringes of Europe. It was because of this isolation in the early part of 20th century that it took so long for the developments in modern art in Europe to reach these shores. With the foundation of The Free State in 1922 there was a desire to shape a new national identity that would distinguish us from Great Britain which meant looking inwards and to our past which in art terms meant images of the West of Ireland, shawled women, workers in the bogs and thatched cottages which contrasted with the modernist art being championed by mainly women artists such as Mainie Jellett, Evie Hone and Norah McGuinness.

Colin Middelton

One of the unique aspects of this exhibition is that the artworks have been mostly loaned from private collections. How difficult was it to acquire these loans/how long were you working on the exhibition?

My wife, Karen Reihill, and I met through art at an exhibition opening in the National Gallery of Ireland so art, from the beginning, is totally interwoven in our relationship. Through this joint passion for the visual arts we have been lucky to meet many fellow collectors who equally enjoy our passion and who over the years have become close friends. Like us they enjoy sharing their interest with others through loaning to exhibitions like this at Dublin Castle and also to the many excellent exhibitions being mounted by the regional galleries around the country. I was in a unique position that these collectors have allowed me full access to their collections to choose whichever paintings I wanted which meant that this exhibition could be organised in the short six month timeframe.

Micheál MacLíammóir

I believe you contrast traditional male-dominated paintings with many female artists who were at the forefront of the modernist movement?

The government of The Irish Free State and the new Catholic middle classes were both nationalistic and conservative when it came to the visual arts so they preferred the more traditional art, and I am not saying bad art, being exhibited at the male dominated annual RHA exhibitions rather than the European-influenced art being shown at the female dominated ‘Society of Dublin Painters’, which was founded in 1920, and the ‘Irish Exhibitions of Living Art’ which commenced in 1943. There were also modernist male artists in the period under our review like Louis le Brocquy and William Scott but women, many of whom had studied in France, like Norah McGuinness, were actively promoting a modernist approach to art through lectures and being on the organising committees of the various societies and encouraged many young up-and-coming artists.

Nano Reid

Do you have any favourite artworks and if so, why?

Being the curator and having chosen all the works for the exhibition I have many favourites for a variety of reasons. I am a great fan of Colin Middleton’s surreal work so am pleased to include “The Bride” (1938). As a student O’Brien’s pub on Leeson Street was a regular haunt of mine so I have known and loved “A bird never flew on one wing” which used to hang in the back bar there, for many decades. I love the whimsical quality to John Luke’s “The dancer and bubble” (1947). Every time I look at “Boyne shapes” by Nano Reid I see something different in it. In contrast to the 1920s, I think it was very significant that the government of the new Irish Republic (1948) choose two modernist women, Nano Reid and Norah McGuinness, to represent our new country at the Venice Biennale which was the first time Ireland was represented there. All of these works are being exhibited in Dublin for the first time in many decades.

Elizabeth Rivers

Need to Know: The Birth of Modernism in Irish Art is on until August 18 in The State Galleries, Dublin Castle, Dame Street, Dublin 2: www.dublincastle.ie. Entrance costs €3.

Penny McCormick

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