A fresh look at Irish cubism

‘Analysing Cubism’ is a major exhibition of Irish Cubist painting at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin.

IMMA, the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork, and the FE McWilliam Gallery in Co Down organised the show. ‘Analysing Cubism’ features work by Irish artists May Guinness, Jack Hanlon, Evie Hone, Mainie Jellett, Norah McGuinness and Mary Swanzy, and fellow Europeans Georges Braque, Albert Gleizes, Juan Gris, Henri Hayden, André Lhote and Pablo Picasso.

Seán Kissane, IMMA curator of exhibitions, and Dr Riann Coulter, art historian and FE McWilliam curator, curated the exhibition. “This exhibition isn’t about cubism as it was invented by Picasso and Braque,” says Kissane. “It’s about the cubism which was developed by André Lhote and Albert Gleizes, in Paris, around 1911 and 1912. The reason for that is because Lhote and Gleizes taught a number of Irish artists and they exhibited in public salons. And, so, they were the public face of cubism. Picasso and Braque exhibited privately in their gallery, so the work they made went to the private gallery and then straight to collectors. They were never shown in public and they were never scrutinised in the public way that Lhote and Gleizes were.”

The earliest painting in the exhibition is from 1912, by André Lhote. It depicts a white horse and encapsulates the hallmarks of cubism: no realistic modelling of figurative elements. The artist conveys a sense of the object or figure he is painting. This was a shift from the realistic painting that had prevailed from the Renaissance onwards.

Irish cubism is dominated by female artists, perhaps because the males were caught up in political themes. Seán Keating is an example. “It’s possible that some of these women had more financial independence than the men,” says Kissane. “Cubism didn’t sell, you couldn’t make a living selling these paintings. You could just about make a living selling the political, figurative work. These women came from backgrounds that were very outward-looking and there was a tendency among their family to travel, to go to France and study abroad.”

The women were up to the trends and sensationalism of the day. A May Guinness painting nods to Picasso’s love of word-play and collage, creating provocative messages through the reconfiguration of newspaper headlines. “He used to pull the words apart and make games with them,” says Kissane. “You can see May, in this case, has done ‘Daily Liberal Party Tension’. So she’s throwing in a joke to show that she knows how to do this. She knows what’s going on, she knows the trends, she’s seen the work.”

Evie Hone and Mainie Jellett are the main figures in the exhibition. They worked together, travelled Europe and received tutelage. They took their work to radical abstraction while studying under Gleizes. As three spiritual individuals, they focused on religious interests. “They made it their goal,” says Kissane, “to incorporate spirituality and religious imagery into this modern aesthetic, because modernism has always been anti-clerical and very anti-establishment. It’s extremely unusual to see three people all working with religious imagery.”

* ‘Analysing Cubism’ runs at IMMA until May 26; Crawford Art Gallery, Cork, from Jun 20 to Sept 1; FE McWilliam Gallery and Studio, Banbridge, Co Down, Sept 13 to Nov 30.


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