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Desperately Seeking Focus

Catherine Marshall

The Poetry of Vision: The Rosc Art Exhibitions 1967-1988, by Peter Shortt, Irish Academic Press, 407 pp, €35, ISBN: 978-1911024293
Art History after Françoise Henry: 50 years at UCD 1965-2015, eds Carla Briggs, Nicky Figgis, Lynda Mulvin and Paula Murphy, Gandon Editions, 208 pp, ISBN: 978-1910140123
Creating History: Stories of Ireland in Art, by Brendan Rooney, Irish Academic Press, 312 pp, €24.99, ISBN: 978-1911024286

Viewed retrospectively, the 1960s marked a dizzying moment in the visual arts in Ireland. The first of the six Rosc exhibitions took place in the Royal Dublin Society’s industrial hall in 1967, providing an important catalyst for Irish modernism, but UCD had kicked off with the launch of the country’s first History of Art department in 1965, to be followed a year later by the appointment of Anne Crookshank to lead a similar department at Trinity College.

These events unfolded against the backdrop of the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Rising, which was marked in the visual arts by the National Gallery of Ireland’s (NGI) exhibition Cuimhneachán 1916. Fifty years on we face a similar confluence of related events: 2016 saw the death of one of the stalwarts of that time, Anne Crookshank, and the publications of a history of the Rosc exhibitions; an anthology of essays, Art History after Francoise Henry, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the UCD department; and Creating History, to accompany an exhibition of the same name, the NGI’s contribution to the centenary of the Rising. This essay will assess the strengths of those publications but aims also to address issues of thematic focus, professionalism and quality in the presentation of the visual arts in this country and in the discourse surrounding it. Has our lacklustre relationship with the visual arts in the early years of the century been impacted by half a century of academic research and education?

Dr Peter Shortt is a lawyer turned art historian. He has set the bar high for ambitious historians with his systematic and thorough appraisal of the Rosc exhibitions in The Poetry of Vision: The Rosc Art Exhibitions 1967-1988. The book outlines the impact of Rosc on art education, artists and audiences that ultimately paved the way for the foundation of the Irish Museum of Modern Art in 1991. Furthermore, it proves the value of art history for contemporary practice. By spelling out the logistical difficulties overcome by small, self-appointed bands of art-lovers to pull off six exhibitions (some of which were groundbreaking for Ireland and influential beyond the country), without dedicated premises and infrastructural support, with massive politicking required to secure state and corporate assistance, manage jurors and artists across geographic and linguistic barriers and prevent personal ambitions from tearing their team apart, this tightly focused book is instructive for those attempting similar projects.

Shortt shows the importance of the Irish diaspora in the person of James Johnson Sweeney, leader of the jurors of the first two Roscs and a former curator of the Guggenheim and Metropolitan Museum in New York. He is tactful but uncompromising in his discussion of the web of personal ambition, passion for the avant garde, arrogance and assumptions of compliance between Michael Scott, the Arts Council under Fr Donal O’Sullivan and Charles J Haughey. The book is most engaging when it outlines the attempts of the first Rosc committee to uproot ancient monuments and transport them to Dublin to show alongside contemporary art. Shortt describes their attempts to override local anxiety about these treasures, and the recommendations of the National Museum, archaeologists and insurers. This was matched by a lordly initiative from the minister for finance (Mr Haughey) to give the RDS museum status to qualify it as an acceptable venue for the displaced monuments, only for the RDS itself to refuse to host them. The originators of the Dublin Contemporary exhibition would have benefited from this history of chicanery in 2010. Despite the challenges, the curators of Rosc ’67 had only ten months, from the moment the decision was taken to stage it, to secure funding and a premises, select jurors and artists – fifty of them from all over the world – transport the art, devise a hanging system for nearly one hundred and fifty artworks in a non-gallery space, design and publish a catalogue and promote the event nationally and internationally. Unbelievably, they succeeded and went on with varying degrees of success to repeat the experiment five more times.

Nearly fifty years later, the National Gallery of Ireland, the foremost institution for the visual arts in the country, closed most of its galleries to the public in 2012, planning to open a refurbished venue to mark the centenary of the Rising in 2016. The promised highlight was an exhibition of Irish history painting, something the country had been awaiting for far longer. The exhibition when it came had a great deal hanging on it. Unlike Rosc, it had to satisfy the needs of generations, not remotely satisfied by Cuimhneachán 1916-1966 or an earlier endeavour – the Thomas Davis Commemorative Exhibition at the National College of Art in 1946. Perhaps not surprisingly, Creating History pleased some and disappointed others, not only because the history it portrayed has always been contested, but also because the exhibition proved once again that confusing painting with reportage does not make for great art. History painting is not and was never meant to be reportage. Instead its aims were to instil feelings of reverence for the heroes of the past and pride in the stories that shape a nation’s identity.

The exhibition was welcomed because it showed hitherto little-known images of Irish history. For a variety of reasons, mainly to do with colonisation, those stories celebrate the victors, so unsurprisingly most of them tell of episodes in the successful conquest of the country. The categories in the exhibition reinforce this pattern. The central theme in the genre of history painting is the hero. Yet in this exhibition the hero has been replaced by the more neutral headings of “Testimony”, “Conflict”, “Assembly”, “Allegory” and “Lamentation”. Displaying Lavery’s trial of Roger Casement under the heading “Testimony”, or describing Michael Collins on his death bed, actually called Love of Ireland, and Jack Yeats’s Going to Wolfe Tone’s Grave as “lamentations” instead of representing them, as their artists intended, as hero pictures, alters their meaning. Classical history painting aimed to provide models for later generations; lamentation pictures, on the other hand, reinforce a sense of victimhood. There is little dispute about whether battles took place, but choosing heroes is a political action. Generally speaking the use of categories is confused; no one who knows the words of the ballad (as the artist almost certainly did), would describe Yeats’s Singing “The Dark Rosaleen”, Croke Park, 1921 as anything other than an act of defiance; it is difficult to find the allegorical content in Barker’s Irish Emigrants or GF Watts’s The Irish Famine, listed as “Allegorical”; should Listed for the Connaught Rangers: Recruiting in Ireland be called a lamentation? Lord Salisbury referred to Lady Butler’s painting Evicted as a “breezy landscape” in order to neutralise its political content. Is that what is happening here too, or is it merely a lack of thematic focus?

If the first Rosc exhibition in 1967 was exciting enough for Nigel Gosling to say in the Observer that it would make London gasp, Creating History in 2016 was very traditional. It was an unquestioning gathering together of important, if not always good paintings. If anything, it showed why such a display is not often offered. An injection of work from the Irish diaspora, so central to Irish history and so rich in art history internationally, would have given a truer picture of Irish experience. Similarly, examples of the press photographs and illustrations that Emily Mark Fitzgerald capably discussed in her essay in the accompanying book would have transformed this into a more challenging and discursive exhibition. Aloysius O’Kelly’s paintings of colonial realities in North Africa, or John Mulvany’s Battle of Aughrim (offered as a gift to the NGI but rejected), alongside Henry Lamb’s Irish Troops on the Judean Hills would have fulfilled a similar function. These would also have added energy, quality (Van Gogh collected O’Kelly), and a more rounded view of Irish history and the international dimension, so essential for the early Roscs but not otherwise easily incorporated here.

Art History after Françoise Henry: 50 Years at UCD 1965–2015 is an anthology of essays written by current and former lecturers in art history at UCD. It celebrates the work of Henry herself but most of all it gives an indication of the work of the department, ranging from medieval manuscript illumination to Dutch and Italian seventeenth century art, classical and modern art and architecture in Dublin and Yale and Irish achievements as artists, collectors, architects, restorers, art critics and cultural policy-makers. Together with a useful history of art history at UCD the book spells out the story, repeated at TCD and NCAD, of growing professionalism in visual arts creation, documentation and administration in Ireland. It is a handsome book that shows that art historians in Ireland can pick their material from anywhere in the world so long as they are as rigorous in their methodologies as the authors in this anthology. It is a pity then that UCD, given the wealth of scholarship it could draw on from that period, did not take the opportunity to present a thematically driven selection of essays, to which it might have invited other distinguished alumni to contribute such as Niamh O’Sullivan and Fintan Cullen. As it stands, it is a timely marker of the transitional period between the first Rosc – when the only professional on the committee was Anne Crookshank – and Creating History at the National Gallery.

It is hard to work back from the book Creating History: Stories of Ireland in Art to the exhibition. The opening words by the director of the National Gallery say that the book was intended to have an independent life after the exhibition, but if you were to attempt a scholarly reconstruction of the exhibition from the book, as Peter Shortt was able to do with all six Roscs, there are difficulties. There is no list of the artworks in the exhibition, so a reader who had not visited it could be forgiven for thinking it contained much more than the fifty-five paintings that Aidan Dunne (Irish Times, October 8th, 2016) tells us were in it. There are often valid reasons for such an omission but it’s worrying that a national institution with nearly five years to prepare for it (compare with Rosc ’67), during which time the gallery was largely closed, could not meet such a basic standard. The book is well-designed in full colour and generously repeats images so that the reader is never inconvenienced. Although it contains some useful essays, overlapping through two of the writers with the UCD publication, it shares the original Roscs’ lack of clear vision at the outset. There is no overarching statement of what history painting is, how this exhibition might interrogate that, and how stories of Ireland in art might be something other than “history painting”.

The foreword, intriguingly, tells us that there are few contemporary portraits of historical figures, but for the purpose of this exhibition, the relative absence of women could have been redressed easily by showing the portraits of Maire Rua O’Brien from the seventeenth century and Sarah Purser’s fine portraits of Maud Gonne. No explanation is given for cutting the “stories” off at some point in the 1930s, no attempt to explain why Mainie Jellett’s modern interpretations of Irish allegorical subjects were excluded, or Le Brocquy’s inventive retelling of the Táin myth which introduced a way of painting history that, like Picasso’s Guernica, speaks to the modern world. These inclusions might have extended the timeframe but would have made for a more exciting and less one-sided project. Most of all, the introductory essay plays about with a number of reasons for the paucity of Irish historical subjects but does not come to terms with the utter dependence of the visual arts on patronage and only superficially with how that patronage was influenced by the politics of the day. Hopefully there is a reason for the way the images in the book skip chronologically back and forth, so that, for example, the section “Conflict” jumps from 1798 to 1014, to 1921, to 1690. It was not obvious to this reader and seems as arbitrary as the timeframe for which, alas, no explanation was offered.

So has academic research had a bearing on our experience of the visual arts today? Peter Shortt’s tightly organised book proves that Rosc had an impact on artists, audiences and art education in Ireland. The essays in the two anthologies are informative, well-researched and well-argued, but thematically diffuse. It’s impressive that Irish art historians are tackling French ballet and sculpture or offering Irish perspectives on Louis Kahn’s architecture, but it would be hard to argue that the imaginative lessons about exhibition and catalogue design of the Rosc exhibitions, especially the early ones, had been taken on board by the NGI. As far as art and national memory is concerned, Creating History reiterated the colonial view of Ireland’s past, and given how patiently we have waited for a wider view of Irish history and the commemorative year in which it was scheduled, that was disappointing. Overall both book and exhibition lacked coherence, courage and imagination.

Rosc’s emphasis on the international – that fresh wind blowing on European Art – that Ollie Granath (Swedish Juror at Rosc 1988) associated with Ireland works two ways: it brought great change to Irish art through Rosc and to Irish art history through Françoise Henry and her colleagues. It could have helped the NGI project too.

1/6/2017
Catherine Marshall is an art historian and curator, formerly founding head of collections at the Irish Museum of Modern Art and Co-Editor of Twentieth Century, Vol. V,  Art and Architecture of Ireland, published by the Royal Irish Academy and Yale University Press, 2014.

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