When Time Began to Rant and Rage: Figurative Painting from Twentieth- Century Ireland examines the intersections between painting and politics and between Irishness and internationalism in Irish painting of our century. Twentieth-century Irish history has raised many questions of identity, of the individual in society, and of Ireland’s relationship to the larger world. Such questions derive in large measure from centuries of colonial status during which all of Ireland was ruled by the English, and more recently over 75 years of partition. Only, however, at the dawn of the twentieth century did Irish painters begin to investigate and attempt to define an Irish identity in their work, establishing a dialogue in which the desire to define an Irish school of painting co-existed with the desire to participate in international art movements.
With the rise of Irish nationalist energies in the 1870s and the Celtic Revival movement in the arts of the 1890s, increasing emphasis was placed on the need to discover a distinctly Irish identity. Many painters actively participated in this effort, which often involved turning to the culture of Ireland’s Celtic, pre-English past. The emphasis on discovering or building an Irish identity in the arts has continued across the twentieth century, a century marked by periods of great political unrest in Ireland—the independence movement, the war of independence (1919–21), partition between what is now the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in 1922, civil war (1922–24), and the Troubles (1968–98). The advent of the Troubles brought renewed artistic interest in identity questions. For these reasons, the twentieth century is, arguably, the only period in Irish history in which distinctly Irish characteristics can be identified in paintings by Irish artists. Prior to this time, most Irish painters worked in styles largely dictated by English or Continental artistic practice, often emigrating to London or elsewhere in search of markets for their work.
The exhibition takes its title from the poem “To Ireland in the Coming Times” by the Irish poet, playwright, and statesman W. B. Yeats. The poem identifies the writer’s day as the one in which “Ireland’s heart began to beat,” a time defined by renewed anger and new energy. This energy can be found throughout the century’s figurative painting, a genre that has remained especially vibrant in Ireland, and that has explored with particular richness issues of identity, Irishness, and internationalism. Many of these artists have struggled with the meaning of foreign influence, on politics and on their work, and with the link of the individual to the Irish land. These considerations remind us that Ireland is a land that has been defined by opposition, between Celt and Anglo-Saxon, between Catholic and Protestant. Further, they suggest that it may be useful to think of all Irish figurative painting as political, as involving conscious or unconscious choices about identity in a dialogue between the Irish and the Other.
Echoes of the Belle Epoque
The artists who open the present exhibition must be seen as transitional figures, looking outside of Ireland (and often to the past) for their artistic influences or their patrons. Walter Frederick Osborne, for example, began his artistic training in Dublin, at the Royal Hibernian Academy—the customary guardian of Ireland’s visual arts traditions—while the more consequential influences on his style came from the Continent. His exposure in France to plein air painting, or painting out of doors, was something he could not have had in Dublin and overturned his stylistic development. The earliest work by Osborne in the exhibition, Tea in the Garden from 1902, is a beautifully painted throwback to French Impressionism as articulated in the 1870s by Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, and others. But its subject is Irish. This was a pattern repeated in various permutations by most Irish painters of this generation. Sir William Orpen looked to England rather than to France, allying himself to a group of English artists even while his best painting participated in the experimentation of avant-garde European painting, including that of Edgar Degas.Sir John Lavery was perhaps the most internationally successful Irish artist of this generation, and like Orpen was rewarded with a British knighthood. Born in Belfast, Lavery was trained first in Glasgow and then in France, where he was most influenced by William Adolphe Bouguereau and Jules Bastien-Lepage, two of the most fashionable artists of the time. Lavery, too, developed an interest in painting out of doors. Unlike Orpen, Lavery maintained close ties with Ireland for the rest of his life, returning frequently and exhibiting at home, even if he resided primarilyabroad. As the independence movement grew in Ireland, Lavery painted the golden moments of a nostalgic Edwardian idyll even in the face of the horrors of the First World War. Other artists showed an early interest in the cause of an independent Irish state. Beatrice Elvery’s Éire of 1907 is a landmark achievement, merging European influences with Ireland’s Celtic past to create a call to arms.
Dawn of a New Realism
Memories of Edwardian splendour and of nineteenth-century plein air luxuriance co-existed, from about 1910, with another thread in Irish painting. This was a new realism, part of a larger movement to rediscover and reclaim distinctly Irish subjects. It was generally advanced by artists such as Paul Henry and Seán Keating who maintained stronger physical and emotional ties to the Irish land than did their more internationalist counterparts. Their interests often focussed on everyday Irish life, particularly scenes of domesticity or economic impoverishment. Realism also crept into the work of the Edwardians, notably Sir John Lavery and Sir William Orpen, both of whom made paintings that depicted the First World War. These war paintings suggest the dilemma the war posed for the Irish, who were drawn into it by their relationship with the British just at the moment that nationalism was literally exploding at home. The Easter Rising of 1916 in Dublin, coming just eighteen months before the war’s end, was the most violent example yet of unrest at home, and led first to the War of Independence, to independence in 1922, and then to bloody Civil War.
The most common focus of new artistic interest in Irish subjects was the articulation of a peculiarly Irish landscape and mentality in the West of Ireland. The West was regarded by both writers and painters as a land of fundamental difference, articulated against the Englishness of the colonial power. The West was also thought to be a primitive “other” within Ireland, uncorrupted by anglicisation, urbanisation, and industrialisation. The West thus provided a way of access to the true Irish past through its language, its folklore, and its way of life. This movement first came about in the early years of the twentieth century; with independence and the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922, national identity was increasingly attached to the landscape. Paul Henry, Seán Keating, and Jack Yeats all turned to the West to find landscape and subject matter that would be defined first and foremost as Irish. Yeats’s early paintings are often devoted to exploring icons of the Irish countryside or Irish life. Charles Lamb’s Dancing at a Northern Crossroads might be seen as the perfect embodiment of this desire, a vision of rural virtue and a pastoral ideal. Other works set in the Irish landscape adopt inescapably political subject matter. Keating’s Men of the South, for example, depicts Irish freedom fighters, while Yeats’s Communicating with Prisoners represents women imprisoned for their political actions.
Jack B. Yeats and Mid-Century
Jack Yeats emerges as the central Irish artistic figure of the century, bursting onto the scene in the 1920s with impassioned paintings rich in the use of colour and thick impasto. His Going to Wolfe Tone’s Grave of 1929 also marks a new beginning of sorts, a return to internationalism on stylistic terms. His palette is less restrained; the treatment of the paint in deep incisions is expressionistic, in a way that looks to the art of interwar German painters. At the same time, by invoking the memory of a great Irish martyr, it speaks of Irish heroism and the politics of republicanism while distancing itself from the latter’s overt political manifestation. Politics here reside in memory rather than in present-day violence. Yeats’s expressionist style and interest in Irish politics were an important legacy for Irish painters of the 1980s and ’90s.
Independence came in 1922 in the form of partition, in which the “Fourth Province” of Protestant-dominated Ulster remained part of the United Kingdom. Partition was itself viewed either as insufficient for the more extreme Republicans or equally as a failure of will on the part of extreme Unionists. Divided opinion even in the newly independent Ireland (divided between those who were for or against partition) led to years of civil war as violent as anything that had preceded them. The resolution of the border and acceptance of partition inaugurated a new era, an era with its own parallels in painting, including a new generation of Irish painters experimenting with a variety of international influences often adapted to Irish subjects. Amongst these is Louis le Brocquy, whose early work drew heavily on the radical compositional techniques of Edgar Degas, adapted heavily to Irish settings. Such work was intended to insert progressive Irish painting into the mainstream of international production. Mainie Jellett, one of a number of influential mid-century Irish women artists, must also be seen in this light, and must largely be credited with bringing European Modernism to Ireland. Her particular conception of Modernism saw it as a serious attempt by a new century to create an identity for itself.
Other Irish painting at mid-century responded to the horrors of the Second World War. Mary Swanzy’s Message, painted at the height of the conflict, can be read as her personal interpretation of a religious theme—Jesus representing hope in the midst of chaos. The work of Patrick Hennessy derives its power from a sense of postwar angst, combining a flirtation with the unsettling emotional tones of Surrealism, an air of mysticism, and allusions to the continuing brutal legacy of emigration.
A Modern Eye
Irish painters of the 1950s and ’60s drew on the legacy of Mainie Jellett and others who brought Modernism into the Irish art academies. The work of many of these artists continues to be marked by a sense of uncertainty and unease. Dan O’Neill’s work from the 1950s suggests a sense of alienation, of the oppressiveness of domestic life in which even the act of birth seems forlorn. When Irish subject matter itself appears, as in Nano Reid’s Tinkers at Slieve Breagh , it often identifies Irishness with rural poverty, as in Reid’s depiction of a band of Irish gypsies. Cumulatively, such work seems to speak to the difficult economic situation in Ireland at this time, as artists observed their country seemingly being left behind by postwar economic posterity. Ireland as an island nation, separate from Europe and divided in itself, continues to assert itself.
The heroism of Irish painting and Irish history gradually reemerges in the later 1960s as already prominent artists such as Louis le Brocquy turned to new subject matter that could be more firmly associated with virtuous traditions. Le Brocquy’s work with skeletal or “evoked” heads derives ultimately from the discovery of a Celtic sculpture, which the artist then adapts to the loose portraiture of Irish heroes both past and present. Likewise, Robert Ballagh turned to a series of portraits of Irish literary and artistic celebrities living and dead that insist on their cultural standing. The most potent move in this direction came in 1977 with Micheal Farrell’s Madonna Irlanda , subtitled “The Very First Real Irish Political Picture.” This controversial picture unites disparate elements drawn from the history of art to suggest an Ireland after the Fall, corrupted into a state of quasi prostitution by its continuing partition and what the artist clearly sees as subservience. It is a powerful image produced nearly a decade into the modern “Troubles,” the period of extreme violence and unrest that began in 1968 and that led to the dissolution of the parliament in Northern Ireland in 1972.
Painting and Politics: the ’80s and ’90s
Paintings dating from the period of the Troubles—which may loosely be said to continue today even after cease fires, all-party talks, and the so-called “Good Friday Agreement” of 1998 because of continuing violence in Northern Ireland—often engage directly with contemporary politics. Whether in the work of David Crone or that of Rita Duffy, who have both been painting for many years in studios in war-torn Belfast where the impact of politics is inescapable, the reality of life in the Troubles finds its way onto many canvases. Many such scenes are urban or convey an urban sense of dislocation in order to explore the place of the individual in Irish society. Dermot Seymour explores similar issues in scenes set in the bucolic Irish countryside in which the military is ever present and often merges with the legacy of Catholicism and the potency of the Irish land. Likewise, artists such as Brian Maguire and Alice Maher often draw on Irish political or social history for their subject matter.
The work of Patrick Graham—characterised as “darkly brooding, tortured and torn paintings depicting a traumatised psychic terrain riven by guilt, sorrow and anger”—may be said to summarise many of these tendencies. Merging an expressionistic use of paint that looks back to interwar German painting with politically potent icons of Irishness, such as the shamrock, Graham’s painting can be emotionally violent. For Graham, Ireland is a country that can be bought, like Farrell’s prostitute, one that is simultaneously worthy of love and hate in a mixture of affection, contempt, and embarrassment that is reminiscent of the writings of James Joyce.
When Time Began to Rant and Rage: Figurative Painting from Twentieth-Century Ireland is organized by the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, dedicated to expanding American understanding of human experience and cultural heritage. Additional funding has been provided by the American Ireland Fund; the British Council in conjunction with the Department of Education, Northern Ireland; and the Department of Foreign Affairs, Dublin. The Grey Art Gallery presentation has been made possible with the help of Glucksman Ireland House at New York University and with support from Martin and Carmel Naughton, The Cultural Relations Committee of Ireland/Comhar Cultúra Eireann, Allied Irish Bank, Country Bank, O’Sullivan Antiques, Aer Lingus, the Abby Weed Grey Trust, and generous private funding.