Book review: Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks

Des Breen looks at a landmark book which not only shines a light on the creativity of Irish artists and writers, but also on the philistinism of the nation.

Edited by Fintan O’Toole, Eibhear Walshe and Catherine Marshall

Royal Irish Academy/The Irish Times, €29, HB

Shock of the new a step too far for Kathleen Ni Houlihan

IRELAND likes to present itself as a land where writers and artists have thrived since the poets’ Rising of 1916.

However, a landmark publication from the Royal Irish Academy and The Irish Times undermines any self-regarding myths we may cling to concerning our creative credentials.

Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks — an ambitious attempt to appraise our society and culture over the past century through its paintings, buildings, novels and poetry — shines a light on a stagnant-minded political elite wedded to orthodoxy, and a hidebound population too easily moved to outrage.

The consequence of this meant that not only was Ireland a cold house for many of its artists and writers but, on numerous occasions, it froze them out altogether with a hostility few democratic nations have inflicted on their most gifted individuals.

Even a cursory glance through its pages shows where the problems lay: fault lines between the native and the ‘foreign’; between Anglo-Ireland and Irish-Ireland, and, hanging over it all, the chasm between a community’s traditional means of expression and new artistic trends in which experimentation and individualism became virtues.

Three instances spread over the century provide examples of the denigration of modern artists. 

When, in 1923, Mainie Jellet put her Cubist painting, ‘Decoration’, on display at the Dublin School of Painters she was branded as a creator of ‘subhuman art’ byGeorge Russell — the same ‘AE’ who had, alongside Yeats and Gregory, been a prime mover in the literary revival. 

Then, in 1958, demonstrating that vehement narrow-mindedness was an all-Ireland trait, Belfast City Council rejected an opportunity to purchase Patrick Scott’s ‘Girl Carrying Grasses’, with one councillor criticising it as a ‘monstrosity’. 

Finally, and as recently as 1988, sculptor Eilis O’Connell was rightly angered when her monumental piece of public art, ‘The Great Wall of Kinsale’ was attacked as being unsightly, painted over, and covered with potted plants by the local council.

Despite this, the book’s editors — Fintan O’Toole, Eibhear Walshe and Catherine Marshall — wisely avoid being cheerleaders for modernism. These pages include many artists and writers whose work was born out of the native instincts of the all-male political and social elite, and this art, surprisingly, has often stood the test of time.

When Éamon de Valera visited the studio of Oliver Sheppard in 1935 he was struck by the sculptor’s image of the dying Cuchulainn and decided, there and then, it would be placed in the GPO to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Rising. 

It isn’t difficult to see why it appealed to him: an Irish warrior, a sacrifice, a dying Christ-like figure — it was a stark image which, for an old soldier of the revolutionary generation, must have caused the blood to pump that little bit faster.

What is surprising is that, despite receiving the official stamp of approval from conservative Ireland, it is a striking work of art, displaying a fluid naturalism reminiscent of Rodin. 

It is to de Valera’s credit that today’s GPO is not dominated by rough-hewn pseudo-classical monstrosities of the type favoured by Governments elsewhere in the 1930s.

A visitor examines Sean Keating’s ‘Men of the West’ when it was on show at the Crawford Art Gallery, Cork. Keating was a favourite painter of the Irish State whose work has stood the test of time.Picture: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
A visitor examines Sean Keating’s ‘Men of the West’ when it was on show at the Crawford Art Gallery, Cork. Keating was a favourite painter of the Irish State whose work has stood the test of time. Picture: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Similarly, painter Sean Keating has maintained a positive posthumous reputation despite becoming the ‘go-to’ artist of choice for the State. 

The painting selected for Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks is his odd 1917 work, ‘Men of the West’, in which the Aran Islanders’ style of dress endows his flying column with the appearance of South American gauchos rather than IRA volunteers. 

The faces, however, portray the requisite level of defiance while the Tricolour adds the nationalist symbolism required for official approval.

Keating’s propaganda imagery ensured his acceptance but for many others, there would be no place in the new Irish state. 

As O’Toole puts it in the introduction: “Modernist visual culture was seen, in influential nationalist circles, to be foreign, Protestant and female and therefore to be avoided.” This applied not only to artists, but to writers.

The conflict between the traditional and the modern was buried deep in the DNA of the new state. Forged in the hothouse of the Gaelic League and the GAA, and with theatrical works like Kathleen Ni Houlihan symbolising Ireland’s new national consciousness, the State could only react with confusion and rejection to James Joyce and Seán O’Casey.

The year 1916 saw not only a political rising but also a literary one, the Irish revolutionary in this case being Joyce. Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks opens with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in which Stephen Dedalus — the writer’s alter-ego — says of his homeland: “When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.”

Here was a writers’ proclamation, words of defiance asserting neither King, nor Kaiser, nor Ireland. It was a modernist’s demand for literary freedom that was to generate hostility toward many creative personalities. 

The riot at the Abbey Theatre in 1926, when the curtain came down on The Plough and the Stars, is well known, but what is often not considered is how provocative O’Casey’s masterpiece must have appeared on the tenth anniversary of the Rising, with its prostitutes and looters taking centre stage.

The National Theatre has often been at the heart of a divide over our understanding of ourselves, with both Sive and A Whistle in the Dark rejected because they depicted dark corners of the national psyche to which we wished to remain blind. Ironically, being an ‘Abbey reject’ was later to become a badge of honour for both plays.

Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks moves into the 1960s via Barrie Cooke’s Sheela-na-Gig paintings, which still have the power to shock; John McGahern’s novel The Barracks, with its intimations of child sex abuse; and Jim FitzPatrick’s iconic and now world-famous image of Che Guevara. 

The Sixties, the editors point out, saw an expansion of cultural activity, especially among women, and while the acceptance of modernity had proved difficult, by 1965 Patrick McSweeney’s Cork County Hall was soaring to the sky, reflecting the spirit of a new age.

With contributions from a range of experts, Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks is a collaborative effort which would have benefited from a broader definition of ‘artwork’. 

The brief laid down a number of conditions: only one work per year since 1916 was permitted; a minimum number of literary pieces in Irish were required, and, unfortunately, the selection was limited to visual works of art or architecture, and poems or novels, so, to the book’s detriment, it contains no films and no music.

With the absence of these popular art forms, there’s a tinge of the ivory tower running through its pages. The Quiet Man, U2’s Boy album, perhaps even Love/Hate, all have something to say about Ireland’s culture in the past 100 years.

That said, as an account of developing Irishness at a time when our national identity was being formed, fought over, rejected and accepted, Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks, is unsurpassed.

Our cultural evolution, as Fintan O’Toole notes, is not one of a straight line marching toward modernity — there are no simple routes from the traditional to the cosmopolitan, but instead, a continual contesting of the past and the present for dominance in creative expression.

There is much to be gained from this book, not least the simple pleasure of pondering the editors’ selections and non-selections — the absence of designer Eileen Gray and novelist Edna O’Brien will leave many scratching their heads — but also at how 100 works of art can excavate the cultural persona of the Irish to unearth, if not the history of a people, at least how those people have perceived themselves.


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