Bringing modern art to drab old Ireland

A new book shows how the Rosc exhibitions were hugely influential, writes Alan O’Riordan

Bringing modern art to drab old Ireland

ROSC is an old Irish word meaning the ‘poetry of vision’, and for those who saw the first Rosc exhibition at the RDS in Dublin in 1967, it must indeed have seemed a visionary thing.

We are used to the newsreels of that drab time: The quiet streets of the capital, never mind anywhere else; the uniform clothing; the mandated piety of the Catholic Church. Yet, here, suddenly, was an exhibition of new paintings by the likes of Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein, and Juan Miro, among 51 artists selected.

While some critics at the time referred to its over-representation of older artists at the expense of younger, avant-garde practitioners, Rosc did bring a large range of quality modernist artworks to a public not used to seeing them.

Among those to attend was Peter Shortt, who has now published a book about the Rosc exhibitions, which ran until 1987, at a rate of one roughly every four years.

“I’d just started reading about art in 1967,” says Shortt. “I was quite a young man at that time. I bought a book about the post-Impressionists and I remember reading that. I went to the first one and I was really very perplexed. It was outside the scope of anything I’d seen before. It was difficult work to grasp for someone who wasn’t familiar with modernist art, but still it was very exciting.”

Shortt kept his interest in art, doing night classes and always visiting galleries and museums in his frequent trips abroad as a patent attorney. After retirement, he pursued a PhD on the Rosc exhibitions, which has just been published in book form.

For Shortt, one of the achievements of Rosc was to introduce modern art to the public and to artists. Despite the regularity of criticism that non-representational art always attracts — a “constant”, says Shortt — he feels it did encourage young people. “Many people who were brought at a young age were introduced to modern art by Rosc and would have maintained an interest thereafter and I think that is one legacy. There are many people and artists still whose first experience of modern art were the Rosc exhibitions.”

Rosc was the brainchild of Michael Scott, the modernist architect. Shortt writes that he felt “it would be an assistance to Irish artists in their development... to bring international exhibitions of contemporary art to Ireland”.

Scott was aided in achieving his vision by the intriguing figure James Johnson Sweeney, the son of a Donegal emigrant to New York who rose to be director of the Guggenheim. Sweeney had a holiday home in Westport and it was there that Scott and he hatched their plan for Rosc, with Sweeney chairing the selection committee.

Shortt’s book is a trove of details, but also a colourful tour through controversy, which Rosc attracted from the outset.

Firstly, was the decision not to include Irish artists; and also, what seems extraordinary now, an aim to relocate certain national monuments from their places of origin to the RDS for the exhibition. The aim made sense: To show that abstraction was not something new, but had continuity with Irish art, stretching back centuries.

However, the furore about the move was front-page news for weeks, amounting to great publicity.

TV also took a big interest in Rosc, while special buses were laid on for students. It was quite a start, but the expense of the undertaking meant Rosc had accrued its first deficit, something it would never shake off, despite support from the Arts Council and, from the outset, Charles Haughey.

As the 1980s progressed, the Irish Museum of Modern Art came on the horizon and the writing appeared to be on the wall for Rosc, which certainly seemed to be the view of the Arts Council.

“There were strained relations,” says Shortt. “There was no reason why Rosc should have been made redundant [by Imma], but it was, and one of the reasons was that the Arts Council felt Rosc had run its course.”

Or course, the irony is that exhibitions on the Rosc model have mushroomed in the years since.

“It’s a pity, in a way, that Rosc ended, because biennials have become one of the most popular ways of showing art, and there were few then, none in England, for example, when Rosc started. Now there are hundreds,” says Shortt.

While Rosc itself will remain in the past, it can be seen, nonetheless, as an important stepping stone in the maturation of this country’s attitude to visual arts.

It was a remarkable undertaking that endured a colourful and somewhat fraught existence, which Shortt has captured in lively detail. An important chapter has been added to the history of art in Ireland.

  • The Poetry of Vision: The Rosc Art Exhibitions 1967-1988, by Peter Shortt, Published by the Irish Academic Press.

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