HERE can be no doubt that Symbolism and Surrealism continue to influence artists working today. But arguably, it is in our schools that the legacy of these artistic movements is most strongly felt.
Perhaps it is the Surrealist reliance on imagination and the portrayal of magical and mystical figures and places which appeal most to young people and their love of fairytales and fascination with dreams.
A current exhibition at the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork entitled ‘The Language of Dreams’ brings into focus (for both young and old) the developing story that these movements have had in the history of Irish art. There is a fantastic array of artwork and artefacts on show that ties important Irish artists to Surrealist heavyweights like Dali and De Chirico — and their common interest in exploring the inner depths of the sub-conscious mind.
The exhibition curator and Crawford Gallery director, Peter Murray, explains where the inspiration for the exhibition came from.
“The spark for the exhibition was the centenary of the birth of Cork artist Patrick Hennessy,” he says, “whose paintings have an uncanny atmosphere and who is one of the few Irish artists of the 20th century to have a genuine sense of the surreal in his work.”
Indeed, it was a revelation to see Hennessy’s work hanging in the gallery so comfortably alongside other Surrealist artists. And in a painting such as ‘Exiles’ from 1943, the artist intimated political overtones in response to the emigration during the Great Famine or the displacement of Europe’s population during WWII.
The sentinel-like figure, which dominates the composition, seems to contemplate those awful events with introverted emotions — a surrogate that faces down those horrors on our behalf.
Murray continues to explain that there was another local interest that helped inspire the exhibition in the shape of Cork-born painter Thurloe Conolly — now in his mid 90s — who recently showed new work in a companion exhibition at CIT Wandesford Quay Gallery.
The final spur, Murray explained, was the link to Roland Penrose who organised the first Surrealist exhibition in London in 1936 and whose son Anthony Penrose visited the Crawford, leading to the inclusion here of his father’s Surrealist photographs.
Selecting and arranging the artwork was a rewarding experience for Murray.
He says the generosity of the artists’ families, such as the Boydells and the Conollys, was crucial. “Making works of art available for the public to see — works that have in some instances not been shown publicly in over half a century.”
The Crawford exhibition certainly does highlight that Surrealism was not merely a footnote in Irish art history — especially when one considers the country’s legacy of mythology, mysticism and folklore.
“Surrealists such as Andre Breton and his contemporary, the poet Antonin Artaud, looked to Ireland as a source of inspiration for their work,” says Murray.
“Irish writers such as Charles Maturin, who wrote Melmoth the Wanderer in the mid 19th century, were revered by the French Surrealists, while 20th century authors such as Samuel Beckett and Myles na gCopaleen are clearly Surrealist in many of their writings.”
Is there something then in the Irish psyche that led the assembled artists to portray the internal world of their mind’s eye with such a dark and foreboding atmosphere?
“The sombre influence that pervades much of the work on display is an expression of a deep-seated awareness of the tragic dimension of 19th century Ireland, where evictions, starvation and emigration were part of the bitter realities of life for many.
“This consciousness informs the work of many Irish writers, not least Bram Stoker, whose novel Dracula contains horrific and fantastic scenes but can be read as a political metaphor, a tale of country people being preyed upon by a bloodthirsty aristocracy.”
The Language of Dreams runs at the Crawford Art Gallery until February 6.