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WORK OF THE WEEK | 5 November 2018

CAG.418 James Barry, Portraits of Barry and Burke in the Characters of Ulysses and a Companion fleeing from the cave of Polyphemus, c.1776, oil on canvas, 127 x 102 cm. Presented, Friends of the National Collections of Ireland, 1956.

WORK OF THE WEEK! Today we take a closer look at one of our most iconic works: James Barry’s catchily titled Portraits of Barry and Burke in the Characters of Ulysses and a Companion fleeing from the cave of Polyphemus (c.1776).

True to Barry’s outlook on the social and political function of art, this is a complex allegorical painting which operates on a number of levels.

Firstly, it is a double portrait of the Cork-born artist and his mentor, statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1797). Secondly, it can be read as a history painting featuring Ulysses (Odysseus), the fabled king of Ithaca, and the Cyclops Polyphemus from Homer’s Odyssey. And finally – are you still with us!? – it may also be a knowing cautionary tale in which Burke warns the impetuous Corkman to hold his tongue against the British establishment.

Look closer: can you see beads of sweat on Barry’s forehead and the artist’s signature (Ja. Barry Pinxit, i.e. James Barry painted this) on the ram’s horn?!

Fun fact: this painting was presented to us by the Friends of the National Collections of Ireland in 1956.

Tune in to The Arts House with Elmarie Mawe on Cork’s 96FM and C103FM every Sunday morning as Conor Tallon chats with assistant curator Michael Waldron about each WORK OF THE WEEK! Listen back to this week's chat here: 

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