Visual Arts, Modern

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Visual Arts, Modern

The visual arts in Ireland have seen striking developments in the twentieth century, from the emergence of a distinctive school of Irish landscape painting, to the ascendancy of modernism and an international outlook that has dominated since the 1960s. The century also saw the establishment of art institutions that provided new venues for the display of art, and the formation in 1951 of the Arts Council, which provided an important measure of government's growing commitment to the arts.

At the beginning of the century, Irish painters who studied abroad continued to produce innovative work. William Leech (1881–1968), for instance, spent time in Brittany where, enriched by contacts with avant-garde art, he produced a series of dazzling painterly works. Roderic O'Conor (1860–1940) spent much of his career in France, and the early advances of modernism are detectable in his art. The first twentieth-century artist who made Ireland his subject matter, though, was Jack B. Yeats (1871–1957). Yeats spent time traveling around the country painting images of Irish life and landscape, particularly the people and places he encountered as a boy in Sligo. Unlike his earlier art, which was grounded in the physical reality of the world around him, his later work is dominated by themes based on memory and past experiences. In these, Yeats's use of color and impasto and his dynamic, expressive brushwork, produce images and moods that make him unique in the Irish art world. Two other artists who were inspired by the west of Ireland in their choices of subject matter are Paul Henry (1876–1958) and Seán Keating (1889–1978). Henry spent nearly ten years in Achill, Co. Mayo; his paintings depict the cloudy skies, thatched cottages, and blue and purple mountains characteristic of the west of Ireland. His realistic interpretation of landscape inspired many eager followers such as James Humbert Craig (1878–1944), Letitia Mary Hamilton (1878–1964), and Maurice MacGonigal (1900–1979). Seán Keating was a student of William Orpen (1878–1931), whose teaching influenced a whole generation of Irish artists, and whose own superb portraits are magnificent in both tone value and color. Keating is known for his strong, dramatic compositions of life on the Aran Islands.

In 1920 Henry, Yeats, and others who were interested in modernist ideas set up the Society of Dublin Painters, which provided a communal focus for artists looking beyond Ireland's shores for inspiration. The Society was synonymous with the best of avant-garde Irish painting; in this milieu artists could experiment with new ideas. Among the pioneers of Irish modernism were Mainie Jellett (1897–1944), who first exhibited her cubist and abstract paintings at the society, Evie Hone (1894–1955), and Mary Swanzy (1882–1978).

Another important development in the interwar years was a desire by artists, both academic and avantgarde, to create a distinctive school of Irish art. Although this aspiration originated in the nineteenth century, it gained momentum following Ireland's political independence from Great Britain in 1922. What emerged in painting was a distinct vision of landscape, principally in the works of Henry, Craig, and MacGonigal. Unlike the earlier idyllic scenes, the new style offered realistic representations of the bleak, stark nature of the landscape and its inhabitants. In sculpture, artists like Oliver Sheppard (1864–1941), Albert Power (1881–1945), and Oisín Kelly (1915–1981) tried to produce a recognizably Irish art: Sheppard through his choice of Irish themes, Power through a conscious selecting of Irish stone wherever possible, and Kelly through use of themes from Celtic folklore. At the same time, artists of the Arts and Crafts movement brought about a Celtic Revival, and much use was made of Celtic patterns in the manufacture of furniture, jewelry, and other ornamental and embroidery goods. With the great increase in church building, stained glass was much in demand, too; its two main exponents were Harry Clarke (1889–1931) and Evie Hone (1894–1955).

A growing dissatisfaction with the conservatism of the Royal Hibernian Academy prompted more adventurous artists to establish the Irish Exhibition of Living Art (IELA) in 1943. It marked an important watershed in the visual arts, becoming a significant annual event and representing the interests of those influenced by international trends. One of its most gifted members is Louis le Brocquy (b. 1916), whose best-known paintings are a series of highly original head images from the 1950s collectively known as "presences"; Brocquy used the face as a means of penetrating the essence of his subject. Other prominent artists involved with the IELA included Nano Reid (1900–1981) and Patrick Collins (1911–1994), whose diverse styles (the former powerfully expressionistic, the latter interpreting subject matter in a lyrical, poetic way) attest to the individualism of Irish artistic creativity throughout the century.

The most obvious feature of the visual arts since the 1960s is that it has become truly international in out-look. A genuinely original style of architecture has emerged. Its variety of modernist and postmodernist styles has dramatically changed the skyline of Ireland's capital city, Dublin. The establishment in 1967 of the international exhibition ROSC (an old Irish word meaning the poetry of vision) brought current works by out-standing artists from all over the world to Dublin every two to four years. These influences have changed the character of Irish painting and sculpture, introducing a range of styles including abstraction in all its forms as well as diverse stylistic variations of figurative art. Sean Scully's (b. 1945) abstract paintings are in sharp contrast to the academic precision of Robert Ballagh's (b. 1943) figurative work and his later mulitmedia landscapes. At the end of the twentieth century political themes emerged: the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland, in the work of painters such as Rita Duffy (b. 1959) and Dermot Seymour (b. 1956), and in the photograhic work of Willie Doherty (b. 1959; and feminism, which has led to a reinterpretation of the female in painting and sculpture. Kathy Prendergast's (b. 1958) Body Map Series makes women's bodies a cultural site; Eithne Jordan's (b. 1954) painting within the new-expressionist wave articulates images of female and familial relationships in unusual configurations. Dorothy Cross (b. 1956), through her assemblages and installations, calls into question issues of gender and authority. In contrast, the sculpted work of Alice Maher (b. 1956) is often straightforwardly feminist.

The exhibition L'Imaginaire Irlandais, held in France in 1996, was a useful barometer of the state of the visual arts in Ireland at the end of the century. In providing an international arena for the concerns of contemporary Irish artists and their examination of politics, myths, and traditions, the exhibition included a cross section of work in a range of media, from photography and video to language and conceptual installations.

SEE ALSO Arts: Modern Irish and Anglo-Irish Literature and the Arts since 1800


Kennedy, S. B. Irish Art and Modernism, 1880–1950. 1991.

Walker, Dorothy. Modern Art in Ireland. 1997.

Síghle Bhreathnach-Lynch

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Visual Arts, Modern

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