I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.


A Century of Art

Christina Kennedy

Irish Art 1920 – 2020: Perspectives on Change, Catherine Marshall & Yvonne Scott (eds), Royal Irish Academy, 448 pp, €38, ISBN: 978-1911479826

Irish Art 1920-2020: Perspectives on Change is an excellent collection of twelve intersecting perspectives that examine Irish art and design as it has evolved over the long twentieth century into the present. The timely collection ranges from engagements with the revolutionary era and a postcolonial state dominated by confessional and patriarchal values, to the challenges of modernism, and the wider vistas of the diaspora, the international style, and globalisation in the contemporary period.

The editors obviously considered the need for a book of this nature to demonstrate how the scholarship and understanding of Irish art and its foundations has expanded, how the field of contemporary art has diversified, and to track arcs of influence or at least sparks of connection between historical practice and shifting conceptions of art in the rapidly changing environment of a multicultural Ireland.

The multiplicity of voices featured in this book covers an impressive range of themes in early twentieth century and more recent art practice that deal with identity, modernity, landscape, corporeality, technology, race, migration and globalisation. the structure of the collection is described by the editors as ‘a kind of a map’, and by extending invitations to a number of contributors from Irish art historical and museological fields, the aim was not to be comprehensive but to offer fresh interpretations and approaches within the hundred-year timeframe and as a stimulus for further debate. As such, the book makes a valuable contribution to the publications on Irish art and culture that emerged in the new century, not least Art and Architecture of Ireland, Volume 5, Twentieth Century (Royal Irish Academy, 2014), which Marshall jointly edited with Peter Murray with Scott as consultant, Fionna Barber’s Art in Ireland since 1910 (2013), and, in the case of Irish visual modernism, the show and catalogue The Moderns, at Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA), 2010/2011.

The editors’ positionality is framed in the introductory essay, ‘Taking charge – making art in a century of change’, which summarises the social, cultural and political milestones that mark the century. Woven through much of the book are hitherto occluded art practices by women, ethnicities, minorities, and collectives, many of which were in protest or rejection of the prejudices they encountered in the cultural and artistic orthodoxies of the time.

By the 1970s artists such as Patricia Hurl, Alannah O’Kelly, Anne Tallentire and Frances Hegarty ‘were all cognisant of how compromised the disciplines of painting and sculpture had become and how the experience of women had been silenced within them’, a trend that is discussed to telling effect in Catherine Marshall’s reflective essay ‘Visualising Irish history: conflicting utopias’. Susanna Chan looks elliptically at how the politics of gender, ethnicity, sexuality are imbricated across the century in approaches to the body in Irish art examined in paintings by John Lavery, Margaret Clarke, Gerard Dillon and later through video, installation and performative imagery such as by Sandra Johnson, Alistair McLennan, Pauline Cummins, Louise Walsh and Jessie Jones.

Nicola Gordon Bowe traces lineage and the timeless potency integrated in materials and techniques of craft as engaged with in practices such as those of Dorothy Cross, Alice Maher, Marie Foley, Abigail O’Brien. Craft’s iconographic forms are also redolent in the development of graphic culture in Ireland as expressed in the design work of Patrick Scott, Niall Sweeney and others in Linda King’s enlightening survey. Yvonne Scott’s ‘Landscape and environment – an expanded field’ looks across the century to how artists have envisioned landscape, from the period of Irish modernism to the era of globalisation. In a text jointly written by Riann Coulter and Donal Maguire, the many forms of and attitudes to abstraction in Ireland are explored as mirrors to how Ireland wished to see itself, another case of ‘conflicting utopias’. The changing language, intention and temporality of sculpture from autonomous object to installatory, multi-material experience is traced in its many different variants by Paula Murphy.

As a museum curator in the modern and contemporary field, I am particularly drawn to those texts that relate to post-1980 and the recent past. In particular, the chapters by Siún Hanrahan, Suzanne Chan, Lucy Cotter and Gavin Murphy examine the multi-disciplinarity of art practices in Ireland from the 1980s onwards, where there is the greatest need for research and analysis.

The purposefully minimal editing of texts to avoid repetition has interesting outcomes such as interweaving references across the book to key works and critical interventions by Brian O’Doherty/Patrick Ireland, not only pioneering in their time but also prescient for today’s practice. Others include James Coleman, Michael Craig Martin, Sean Scully, Willie Doherty, Gerard Byrne, Vivienne Dick, Dorothy Cross, Anthony Haughey, Jesse Jones, Amanda Coogan, Alannah O’Kelly, Nigel Rolfe, all highly influential figures in their fields who work with technology and material culture, often creating indexical formats that raise searching questions about the ‘real’, narrative, time and the nature of representation. James Coleman in particular has been hugely influential internationally since the 1990s and 2000s.

In O’Doherty/Ireland’s case, several contributors have referenced a number of his critically important works, including Aspen 5+6 (The Conceptual Issue), 1967, (the first art exhibition outside the gallery space); Name Change, 1972, a performance (the first in Ireland) in protest at the Bloody Sunday killings in Derry, and its closing event thirty-six years later, the performance The Burial of Patrick Ireland to mark the Peace Process in Northern Ireland; the installation Rick, 1975; as well as the artist’s writings, including the highly influential Inside the White Cube: the Ideology of the Gallery Space, 1976, and earlier The Irish Imagination, 1971, part of ROSC that year, considered controversial by some in view of O’Doherty’s attempt to reclaim Irish art in the name of the ‘local’.

Such concerns about the ‘local’ surface in Gavin Murphy’s overview of conceptual art, itself a conceptual exercise that raises thought-provoking questions. One of these queries the ‘esoteric’ nature of O’Doherty’s ONE HERE NOW (2018), an expansive wall painting installation at Sirius Art Centre, Cobh. Its local codes are, in fact, those of the serial nature of the ancient Irish script of Ogham, which underpinned O’Doherty/Ireland’s  practice since the 1960s in countless examples. Murphy’s further charge of the ‘geographical distance’ exemplified by the work is hard to reconcile with its presence in Cobh, an historic point of departure for countless emigrants who retained the memory of that highly charged moment. Cobh is as synonymous with emigration as Ellis Island or Holyhead. The message is simple enough. It’s no more cryptic than Ogham stones themselves.

Murphy also takes issue with the paintings’ handmade qualities but these can be considered intrinsic to their effects, if we recall Isabel Graw’s delineation of the handmade in marking the indexical in an age of technology.  In the move from pigment to slide projector, and then to digital forms, the material objects of technology themselves have changed but it is all the more important, as Graw insists, that tactile elements are recognised as vital components, and analogue qualities not seen as anachronistic.

It is in this light that we should view O’Doherty’s attempts to use the handmade, paradoxically, to imitate the technological. Examples are among his series entitled Gestures (1963-1980), which features indexical works such as Portrait of Marcel Duchamp that deploy a rotating backlight to creates a sort of oscilloscope suggesting or, more to the point, recording a heartbeat (1965-66). Related effects literally take place in Plato’s Cave, 1968, a photograph of a blind corner in Manhattan in which a silver column is flanked by two rectangular spaces in shadow, leading the critic Hal Foster to note ‘a play of light and dark on the silver column, a play that is an allegory of nothing but human sense, photographic surface, corporeal consciousness’. If there is ‘geographical distancing’ in O’Doherty’s vision, it is from the self, as in The Transformation, Discontinuity, and Degradation of the Image (1969-2006), a schematic grid using photobooth imagery in the repeated act of recording over time – serialised, disciplined and neutral – to negate the act of self-portrayal.

In relating landscape to Brian O’Doherty’s Rick, 1975, Yvonne Scott discerns a meaning that is distant from the artist’s original intention but which raises interesting questions about contexts of interpretation. The original concept of the work in the 1970s requires the turf to be built as a half-rick leaning up against a period ‘Big House’ fireplace, to conceptually confront what the latter represents in Irish cultural history and subvert the colonial fireplace with the rick’s ancient construction and vernacular aesthetic. When re-situated decades later at Cobh in 2018 as part of the ONE HERE NOW exhibition, the reconstructed version, as pointed out by different commentators, acquires a new ecological meaning when turbary rights are themselves in question in the age of the Anthropocene, leading Scott to conclude the work deals now with ‘the consequences of turf-cutting, most notably the revelations, transnational in their relevance, regarding the impact on the environment of the release of greenhouse gases’.

The philosopher and critic Mladen Dolar’s observations are, perhaps, relevant here, when he notes that an art work ‘is not merely a child of its time, but at the same time breaks up with its time … So much so that instead of art being explained from its historical context, the opposite is actually true: art has the power to explain its own context and in a sense be the one to create it’. Instead of being determined by its context, O’Doherty’s Rick shows in its range of interpretations how art has the ability to work back on its environment. As Dolar goes on to suggest, this is not so much transcending but disrupting historical time: ‘Art … would then be the rupture of the universal amidst the particularity of the circumstances; the way in which these circumstances reach beyond themselves and reach everyone’.

There has been a tendency now and again to over-condense complex histories in order to crystalise ‘facts’, for example viewing Michael Craig Martin and Ellen Gallagher through the lens of their generational Irish lineage, or in the inference that Francis Bacon could only image paintings of homosexuality after his exile from Ireland (implying that his Irishness was otherwise uncomplicated). The re-location of Francis Bacon’s Studio to the Hugh Lane Collection (presented in 2001), and its impact on Irish and International practitioners since, might have merited some discussion in the text, not least the implication of bringing such seemingly chaotic ‘genealogies ‘of creativity to bear on finished art works on the walls of a gallery. More discussion might also have been extended to Hilary Heron’s sculptural achievement, given that her representing Ireland at the Venice Biennale in 1956 (jointly with Louis le Brocquy) is mentioned in the chronology. In 1969, she and Gerda Fromel were named at the two most innovative Irish sculptors in Bruce Arnold’s A Concise History of 20th Century Irish Art, and her achievements are the subject of an extensively researched exhibition and publication currently at IMMA, curated by Sean Kissane and Riann Coulter.

Lucy Cotter’s in-depth interrogation of the motivations and complexities that accompanied the framing of the ambitious A Sense of Ireland exhibition in London in 1980 sets the context for a much needed exploratory analysis of institutional as well as critical and aesthetic developments in Irish art. A Sense of Ireland was a major festival of Irish culture which included a multi-project series of exhibitions showcasing Irish art, and Cotter distils the motivations behind readings of the various strands displayed as a national reflection on how Ireland saw and wanted to project itself then. This included the role of Dorothy Walker, who as curator of the important exhibition Without the Walls (inspired, indeed, by O’Doherty’s Inside the White Cube), commissioned conceptual artworks by a number of artists. This was accompanied by a critical text that attempted to trace an essentialising kinship in contemporary Irish art to an ancestral linear Celticism, but it could be argued this is precisely the kind of (a)historical continuity questioned in O’Doherty’s disruptions of time.

A mere nine years later, in 1989, the Berlin Wall would fall, creating a Europe expanded and diversified, to which the art world quickly responded. The mobility of artists, curators and collectors increased, aided by reduced airfares, internet connectivity and open borders, from which new myths of a ‘global village’ soon emerged. There was an exponential growth of new museums in the margins as well as the centre, including IMMA in 1991, which profoundly reflected a fundamental shift in Eurocentric conceptions of art. To reflect this, the format of the book, admirable as it is in its range of contributors, might have included more international perspective(s), whether from those living in Ireland, or figures abroad familiar with the Irish art world such as Isobel Harbison, Paul O’Neill, Miguel Amado, Lívia Páldi,  or artist-educationalists such as Sarah Pierce. There are also numerous past international curators of EVA in Limerick, whose direct experience of Irish art practice might have brought new unexpected insights.

In addition, the importance of exhibition-making as a form of research and critical practice  might have been explored more, along the lines of Lucy Cotter’s insightful approach. The curatorial field has expanded hugely in recent decades to embrace not only critical but creative aspirations,  and the politics of production, display and distribution, if contentious at times, are fundamental to the discussion.

The content of this book was gathered in 2020 but its publication was delayed to 2022 due to Covid 19. Now four years on, it is remarkable how the artworld and art practice in/from Ireland already feels a different place, and the book provides useful pointers to this future. What is current and what is new is very soon overtaken by fast-moving streams of time, and their often divergent tributaries. This was explored in a Collection exhibition at IMMA in 2021-22, The Narrow Gate of the Here and Now: 30 years of the Global Contemporary, the title extracted from an essay written by art theorist Boris Groys in 2009. In it, Groys flags how difficult it is to situate one’s thinking in the moment of the contemporary, since the present so quickly becomes the past.  Since that time much has been done to open up the narrow gate to address greater inclusivity and diversity, and to rediscover work by women artists, overlooked by the canon for so long, including the initiatives in the present book.

Questioning the ‘authority of time’ invoked by the collector, the  philosopher Giorgio Agamben notes the tendency to project perspectives from ‘the current moment in order to crystalise and stabilize experiences of making, or histories that are still forming. The “authority of time” is set up by the writer based on their interpretations of the contexts, situations and constraints which have been constructed to frame the atmospheres and eras within which art is made.’ So it is that the present book recreates through its range of writers, research, and interpretations of historiography how artworks operate over time, becoming part of the history that is constantly re-made through the imagination of art itself.


Christina Kennedy is Senior Curator: Head of Collections at the Irish Museum of Modern Art. She was co-curator, with Enrique Juncosa, of The Moderns exhibition/catalogue, IMMA (2010/2011).


Patricia Hurl, Jingle Bells, 1988, Acrylic on board, 60 x 91 cm, Collection Irish Museum of Modern Art, Purchase, 2021
Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Amanda Coogan, Yellow, 2008, Collection Irish Museum of Modern Art, Purchase, 2021
Yellow performed in I’ll sing you a song, RHA, Dublin, 2015 Photo: Paddy Cahill



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