Making history

The Crawford Art Gallery in Cork puts the work of Seán Keating in a modern context, writes Tina O’Sullivan

Making history

SEÁN Keating: Contemporary Contexts is the major summer exhibition at the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork. It features the paintings of Seán Keating (1889-1977) as well as those of other artists, such as Colin Middleton and Robert Ballagh, who engage with similar themes. The show is curated by Dr Eimear O’Connor, an art historian whose PhD focused on Keating’s work.

O’Connor spent 15 years working as a visual artist before studying art history at UCD. Her third year paper on Keating was the starting point for her interest in his work and she has since spent over ten years researching Keating’s art alongside her lecturing post and other projects.

“I applied to do my PhD and realised his family had some papers on him, so I knocked on the door and offered to catalogue them,” says O’Connor. “They said come in, there’s only a suitcase. In fact there were 18 boxes, with thousands of items, which took me two years to archive. I did a full-scale thematic PhD and looked at every aspect of his career, everything he worked on. I was all over the world doing research.

“I’ve changed my mind a lot about Keating since my PhD as I’ve continued to work on him.” O’Connor has written a book on Keating, Seán Keating: Art, Politics and Building the Nation which will be published next April.

Keating was born in Limerick to a working class family. He was schooled up to the age of 15 and a few years later decided to attend art college.

“In 1904 he went into the Limerick Technical School of Art where he won every prize going,” says O’Connor. “The summer of 1911, he did an entrance exam to Dublin Metropolitan School of Art and got in. He got to know William Orpen very well and about 1909 Orpen painted a self-portrait dressed as an Aran man. In 1915, Orpen went back to his own portrait and gave the identity to Keating. Keating was a very successful student and in 1914 he won the RDS Taylor Award, a very important prize for students to win when they’re finished their training.”

Keating worked as Orpen’s studio assistant in London for a year after he graduated and Orpen’s influence is evident in his painting thereafter. Keating returned to Ireland as the country was struggling to overthrow British rule. It was a cause close to his heart.

“Man of the West is a portrait of his brother Joe who was a member of the IRB,” says O’Connor. “As a member of the IRB he was not painted full-on because it was a secret organisation and he could be recognised. This was painted in 1915 but wasn’t shown until 1917, after the Easter Rising, and I think he put the Irish flag in afterwards as they raised the tri-colour over the GPO in 1916.”

Contemporary Contexts features a painting of President Cosgrave, privately commissioned and then shown by the Hall Gallery on Leinster St, which has not been seen since 1923. O’Connor found it in a roll of canvases at the home of Keating’s son.

"Keating is known as the painter of the political situation," says O’Connor. Men of the South depicts the north Cork guerrilla column and has been in the Crawford Art Gallery collection since 1922. Three versions of this painting were executed by Keating. Sean Moylan was in command of the North Cork guerrilla column at the time.

Men of the South doesn’t feature Moylan, as Keating was planning to show the painting in the Munster Art Exhibition in Cork when Moylan was a wanted man, so it couldn’t be shown. Keating did a second version, An IRA Column, around the same time which is now in the OPW collection. This time, Moylan is in it. It was shown in the RDS slightly later, in 1923 — the Civil War was over, and Moylan wasn’t a wanted man any more. The third version is held in a private collection.

O’Connor has selected a range of other painters to hang alongside Keating, to demonstrate how they have tackled subject matter similar to his. “It’s called Contemporary Contexts because I wanted to show how other artists were responding to the same themes,” says O’Connor.

“Although they were not necessarily using the same way of painting. Artists will often go back to history. A fine example of that is Mick O’Dea, whose work sits very well among the Keatings. In The Body Snatchers, O’Dea paints the Black and Tans — at the time, Keating couldn’t have done it, but Mick O’Dea can do it now, though even now it’s a contentious thing to be doing. It’s interesting to look at how an artist in 2012 goes back to history and uses it as a resource to paint.”

The Spanish Civil war is picked up by Keating through a portrait of Fr Michael Flanagan, the president of Sinn Féin, who was removed from clerical duties in the 1920s and not reinstated until 1938.

It was shown once at the RHA in 1936, but was not shown again, as Keating had to be careful in taking a political stand for fear of losing his job as a part-time lecturer at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art. Alongside this portrait is a surrealist take on the Spanish Civil war by Irish artist Colin Middleton and a Robert Ballagh portrait of Michael O’Riordan, a devout communist who, aged 17, fought in the Connolly Column against Franco.

Keating was interested in technology and used photography and film to help realise his paintings. His grandson David Keating is a film-maker and in 1996 he collaborated with his father Justin to make a documentary film on Keating. This incorporated footage Keating took on the Aran Islands on his cine-camera. He had been introduced to the cine-camera by Robert Flaherty, who made the film Man of Aran. The Irish Film Archive cut of this documentary is included in Contemporary Contexts.

O’Connor is curating a second Keating show in the RHA this autumn made up of the ESB’s collection of Keating paintings.

“The ESB have the largest collection of Keating’s paintings in the world,” says O’Connor. “Their collection includes his paintings of the building of the dam at Ardnacrusha. He went down on site where this enormous concrete dam was being built by Siemens, the German company. It was a metaphor really for the future of Ireland. It was Ireland’s first big engineering project; he was an allegorical thinker so he saw it as very much a move forward.”

* Seán Keating: Contemporary Contexts runs in the Crawford Art Gallery until October 27.

* Seán Keating and the ESB: Enlightenment and Legacy runs in the RHA from Sept 5-Dec 21.

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