Realism and Modernism in Irish Art (1900–1990) Selected work from Crawford Art Gallery’s Collection

Until Saturday 3 May 2008

Realism and Modernism in Irish Art (1900-1990) highlights the best of the Crawford Art Gallery's permanent collection, bringing together works for the first time from three parts of the collection: The Gibson Fund acquisitions since the 1930's: the Fr. McGrath collection bequeathed in the 1990's, and the Great Southern Collection donated by the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism to the Crawford Art Gallery in 2006. 

The exhibition reveals how the prevailing approach to Academic Realism was gradually challenged, in the 1920's and decades following, by the introduction of new ideas from Europe.

Whilst Modernism can be seen as defining the burgeoning industrialised countries in Europe and North America, the art that came to represent the new Irish Free State in the 1930's was essentially a form of Academic Realism which was rooted in the seventeenth century in the art of Velasquez and Murillo it was also influenced by French Realism, which sought to convey an objective vision of contemporary life. The Realist painters and sculptors, many of them graduates of the Dublin Metropolitan School and the Crawford School of Art in Cork - William Orpen, Sean Keating, James Sleator and Soirle MacAna - held sway as pillars of the art establishment in Ireland.

However, many Irish artists began to be influenced by Modernist principles, often directly from Europe and through scholarship funded by the State education system.  One of the main strands which influenced the roots of Modernism lie in Picasso’s and Braque’s Cubism – the fracturing of the image, the rejection of perspective and the emphasis of the two-dimensionality of the canvas.

Mainie Jellett, Evie Hone and Norah McGuinness who trained at the Dublin Metropolitan School, embraced Modernist principles, following their respective studies in Paris in the studio of Andre Lhote. Jellet and Hone also studied by with Cubist artist and theorist Albert Gleizes. They returned to Ireland inspired by these developments and became key influences in Ireland.

During the years of World War II, Ireland became a haven for progressive artists from Europe, and a surprisingly sophisticated art world developed. The White Stag Group founded in 1935, led by Basil Rákóczi and Kenneth Hall, encouraged a move from Academicism to Modernism, and their “Subjective Art” strongly influenced the work being made at the time by Irish artists such as Louis le Brocquy and Patrick Scott. The exhibitions of the White Stag Group inspired the establishment of the Irish Exhibition of Living Art in 1943 by Louis Le Brocquy, Norah McGuinness, Mainie Jellett and Jack Hanlon, amongst others which continued annually for over three decades.  The popularity of the IELA showed that there was a real enthusiasm amongst Irish art collectors for more radical trends. However, the version of Modernism they most appreciated was adapted to a more conservative aesthetic.

It has become routine to dismiss the visual arts of 1950's Ireland as being inward-looking, but in fact many talented artists were continuing to work quietly during these years, creating paintings and sculptures of real quality. When, in the 1960's, industrial progress did come to Ireland,  the visual arts reflected this economic up-turn with the emergence of movements such as Pop Art, Minimalism and performance art – notably by Robert Ballagh, Cecil King and Noel Sheridan respectively.

A downturn in the economy in the 1980's saw a resurgence of an expressive form of realism, exemplified in the work of Barrie Cooke, Rita Duffy and Brian Maguire, where raw painting perhaps conveyed a sense of anger at the return of high unemployment and emigration.

The visual arts in Ireland today continues to reflect simultaneously an inward and outward gaze, absorbing influences from abroad but also creating compelling art that reflects the concerns and dynamics of contemporary Irish society. One of the questions posed by this exhibition is: which of the variety of contemporary art forms employed by Irish artists will be held in the future to embody the spirit of the present day, in the same way as Patrick Scott expresses clearly the optimism of economic and social development of the 1960's, or a generation earlier, that Norah McGuinness and John O’Leary had cleverly adapted the raw lessons of Cubism to a realist tradition, creating an art that was progressive but also acceptable to a conservative and insular art audience.

Recent Acquisitions

22 May–12 July 2008

Artists include Rita Donagh, William Gerard Barry, Michael Mulcahy, Harry Moore, Billy Foley.

There, Not There

25 July–27 September 2008

There, Not There features the work of five contemporary  Irish painters – Felicity Clear, Elizabeth Magill, Mark McGreevy, Paul Nugent and Orla Whelan, who explore within their individual practice the boundaries between memory, perception and time.

Each artist plays with the properties of paint, photographic references and personal experience to interrogate the blur between the natural and the fabricated image, and the real and the perceived, and question how the memory processes what is real and what is imagined.

Many of the paintings offer a subtle lie or an exaggerated truth, and the substance of the paint is used to articulate the concerns of each artist. Felicity Clear uses light, thinly applied, acrylic paint to create heavy, unsettlingly unpopulated urban landscapes, while Paul Nugent´s  traditional technique of oil painting and glazes conveys layered meanings of subjectivity and experience. In the paintings of Elizabeth Magill, the paint activates palpably familiar yet strangely foreboding landscapes. Mark McGreevy luxuriates in the rich fluidity of the medium, creating distorted realities whilst Orla Whelan denies such privileges to the oil paint in her paintings forcing the luscious energy of the flesh to be a static skin.

How the mind processes vision is dependent upon a subjective amalgamation of the past and present -sometimes what we perceive to be real is different to what we have viewed and experienced. In merging the image of a photograph with the images from the cognitive and the imaginary, the paintings in this exhibition present a shared sense of memory as if the images created by the artists could belong to the viewer´s own experience or dream.

Daniel Maclise (1806–1870) Romancing the Past

24 October 2008–14 February 2009

The exhibition will opened on October 25th. 2008 and continued through to February 14th 2009. With over two hundred works, including oils on canvas, drawing and prints, on loan from institutions and collectors throughout Britain and Ireland, the Maclise exhibition will be the most important project organised by the Crawford Art Gallery in over three years.. The show will be accompanied by a catalogue, contributors to which include Prof John Turpin, who contributed to the 1972 Maclise exhibition at the Tate, Prof. Fintan Cullen of Nottingham University, Dr. Nancy Weston, whose biography of Daniel Maclise was published recently, and Prof. Tom Dunne, editor of the catalogue for the 2005 James Barry exhibition at the Crawford. There will also be a series of lectures and an education programme for schools. The exhibition and catalogue, will give a new insight into an artist famed in his day but whose florid and Romantic style fell out of favour in the 20th century.

Born in Sheares Street, Cork, the son of a discharged British soldier who had set up as a cobbler (or as a tailor) in Patrick Street, Daniel Maclise was, from an early age, an artist of precocious ability. After a short period working in Newenham´s bank, in 1819, when the Cork School of Art was established in the former Apollo Theatre, Maclise was one of the first students to enrol. He would have been thirteen years of age. The impetus for setting up the school came from the arrival in Cork of a set of sculpture casts from the Vatican Museum. Among them were some of the most important Graeco-Roman sculptures and Maclise made the most of this opportunity, demonstrating great skill in drawing from the antique.

A relatively impoverished art student, Maclise received support from a number of patrons, including the antiquarian Richard Sainthill and, later in London, the writer Crofton Croker. His quick facility and talent for catching a likeness were demonstrated in 1825, when Sir Walter Scott, on a visit to Cork, called in to Bolster´s Bookshop on Patrick Street, where Maclise made a portrait sketch of the celebrated writer. The demand for this sketch was such that Maclise, never slow to recognise an opportunity, made at least three versions. It is said that the portrait was lithographed, but the surviving versions all appear to be pencil on paper.

The success of the Scott sketch led to commissions for portrait drawings of members of leading families in Cork, and military officers stationed in the city. Maclise also toured through Kerry, Waterford and Cork, making drawings of picturesque river scenery, houses, abbeys and castles. In 1827, aged still just nineteen but already an established local artist, Maclise went to London, where the following year he enrolled as a student at the Royal Academy schools, where in 1831 he gained the Gold Medal for History Painting.

His paintings from this period are generally ambitious attempts to portray scenes from British and European history, such as the work in the National Gallery of Ireland, Charles I, King of England and his Children, before Oliver Cromwell. In 2007, the Crawford Art Gallery acquired, at Sothebys, the painting Francois I and Diane of Poitiers, painted in 1834, that depicts a scene from sixteenth century French history. Maclise also attempted Irish subject-matter, most notably in the painting that blends folk beliefs with literary portraiture, Snap Apple Night (1833) and more controversially in The Installation of Captain Rock, depicting outlaws and social unrest in rural Ireland.

Maclise´s history paintings were often inspired by literary works, such as the plays of Shakespeare, and in his work the distinction between illustration and fine art is blurred. He produced many illustrations for works of literature, such as Tom Moore´s Irish Melodies, the poems of Tennyson, and woodcuts for some of the ‘Christmas books´ of Charles Dickens, such as The Chimes, and The Cricket on the Hearth. Maclise´s style can perhaps be described as Neo-Gothick, in that while it is clearly indebted to Northern European realist tradition, there is also a strong vein of whimsy and the grotesque in the imagery he employs.

In London, most of Maclise´s friendships centred on the Tory periodical Fraser´s Magazine, for which he produced dozens of lithographed portraits of leading writers and politicians. However, the high point of his career was reached in the mid-1840´s, when he was commissioned to paint murals for the Houses of Parliament. One of these works, The Marraige of Strongbow and Aoife (1854) is now in the National Gallery of Ireland, but the two largest works, The Meeting of Wellington and Blücher (1861) and The Death of Nelson (1865) are in the Royal Gallery in the House of Lords. After the death of Prince Albert, who had revelled in the military detail of these paintings, Maclise discontinued his work in the Houses of Parliament. Although he strove for, and achieved, success, when offered the presidency of the Royal Academy, Maclise refused, and he refused also the offer of a knighthood.

It is anticipated that over 100,000 visitors will visit the exhibition.

Further reading:
Richard Ormond and John Turpin, Daniel Maclise, 1806–1870 (National Portrait Gallery, London), 1972.
Nancy Weston, Daniel Maclise: An Irish Victorian Artist in London, 2000

Crawford Art Gallery

Crawford Art Gallery