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.

But Is It Art?

Catherine Marshall

Sources in Irish Art 2: A Reader, eds Fintan Cullen and Róisín Kennedy, Cork University Press, 424 pp, €39, ISBN: 978-1782054573

There are two comments buried among the source material in this anthology which should give us all pause for thought before getting stuck into an evaluation of the process of gathering, selecting and presenting sources, especially when the subject is Irish art. The first of these, a letter from Samuel Beckett to his friend Thomas MacGreevy about Jack B Yeats, warns MacGreevy that, speaking of “the Irish people”, he can’t “imagine that it ever gave a fart in its corduroys for any form of art whatsoever ….”). The second, penetrating but less irreverent, is from the pen of Nano Reid, significantly a practising artist. She reminds her readers that “The bane of the modern artist is the academic critic …” This book is undeniably academic, even if not intended as a critique of modern art, but it is  an anthology aimed at students and scholars interested in attitudes to Irish art.

A strange thing happens to an anthology when you call it a source book. It acquires a particular kind of authority, a sense that it contains essential documents for the study of a particular field and, therefore, it immediately enters the academic canon at a senior level. As Julie Rifkin and Michael Ryan, in their tremendously useful anthology Literary Theory: An Anthology (Blackwell, 1998) point out, there is always a tension between the need for the inclusion of well-known material and the desire to incorporate recent discoveries and new writing. Success or failure hinges on the principles of selection, raising questions about the construction of historical narratives, especially true when the anthology is a source book for students. There is also the perpetual question of where the content now stands in location to the “canon” wars. In other words – even with a source book, context is everything.

Things have changed since Fintan Cullen edited Sources in Irish Art 1: A Reader in 2000. A vast amount of material has been researched, ploughed into theses and published on Irish art, which, back in 2000, was still relatively virgin territory for scholars. Its sequel, this time jointly edited by Cullen and Róisín Kennedy, emerged, twenty-one years later, into a hotly contested world. Indeed some of the expansion of that field is directly attributable to the work of these editors themselves.

The introduction to the current volume tells us helpfully that the timeframe has been significantly stretched at both ends and that it now provides digital sources as well as hard copy text and that, like Sources 1, it is organised thematically rather than chronologically. Rather intriguingly, for this reviewer, it tells us the organisation of this one is “more consistent with current developments in the history of art and more immediately relevant to ongoing debates within the discipline, including texts that deal with gender, sexuality, race, identity and institutional critique”. Colonialism, identity, gender and institutional awareness were as relevant twenty years ago as now, and if race is the new ingredient, apart from Daniel Jewesbury’s challenging essay “Art and Society, Race isn’t an Irish issue” already published in 1998, the anthology fails to address the impact on racial discourse prompted by new communities in Ireland and the Black Lives Matter movement. Perhaps audiences both here and in universities and Irish Studies departments everywhere are now more willing to hear them, but a good sources book should be prompting the discussion rather than waiting until it becomes acceptable subject matter.

So what about the principles of selection and what are the outcomes? To take the second question first, there is a great deal to celebrate in this volume, as there was in the first one. It’s useful to have descriptions of early Irish art collections such as Dunton’s of the Kilkenny Castle collection or that of the Earl Bishop of Derry by John Gamble or to read Oscar Wilde’s compassionate support for Henry O’Neill. It’s a welcome pleasure to read Frances Cobbe’s stalwart text about women sculptors, even if it’s not about Irish art. The inclusion of Tom McEvilley’s “From Beyond the pale” essay in the same anthology as Lucy Cotter’s critique of it and John Kindness and Lucy Lippard’s related perspectives on art and activism are intelligent and valuable combinations. Matthew Arnold’s racist diatribe about the Celts and George Moore’s savage attack on women make for unpleasant reading but it is important that we know those writers for who they really are. However arrogant, uninformed and provocative they may have been, when discussing Irishness or women, they serve as important reminders of how the culture wars have changed in recent decades and of the negativity and gaslighting that shaped Irish people historically. Instead of humbly acknowledging our deficiencies we now have a framework for recognising such colonialist, racist and sexist onslaughts for what they reveal about the person who issued them rather than those at whom the barbs are targeted. And the book is full of such moments, mitigated by John Sproule’s speculation about the impossibility of great work like Rauch’s Victory, shown at the Irish Industrial Exhibition in 1853 for an Irish artist, because as he believes, “such works … never will see the light, save in the happier and more glorious moments of a nation’s history”. A real surprise in the selection is an essay by American writer Cheryl Herr, proffering a psychoanalytical reading of Micheal Farrell’s Madonna Irlanda, making one wonder if the “celtic cult of the head” and consequent denial of the sexualised body was a real factor in Irish art as she and others have assumed ‑ but is the evidence really there? Did she know about sheela na gigs?

Some of the texts are predictable, such as Clement Greenberg’s review of Rosc ’67, but no less important for that. However, the Waterhouses’ blatantly promotional description of their own jewellery, even if it is a replica of a heritage item, is frankly no more than advertising. We might also have reservations about including both Courbet and Ford Madox Brown on their Irish subjects when we already have Frederick Goodall’s equally well-intentioned but patronising remarks; the three letters from William Orpen barely earn a place, no more than the self-promotional piece by Edward Lees Glew, especially when it cannot be accompanied by an image. This matters when so much more thoughtful writing is omitted. Missing are Michael Kane’s bitter attacks on the Arts Council in the 1960s and ’70s and Patrick Kavanagh’s even more acerbic, but well-thought-out essay on parochialism and provincialism. They should be included in every source book on Irish art. Apart from a House of Commons debate on the ownership of the Broighter hoard in 1898, politicians are thin on the ground here, yet they have had an impact beyond their capabilities. One thinks of government minister Sean Moylan in Waterford in 1939 railing against art as a stronghold of the ascendancy in Ireland and therefore not “true art”, and Maud Gonne’s letter to John Quinn denouncing Hugh Lane as a “cur” who got a knighthood on the basis of a “supposed gift”. At least one text relating to the censorship of visual imagery in Ireland would also have been useful.

On the whole, however, the selection is thoughtful and wide-ranging and the introductions to each entry are useful and self-effacing.  But they do not explain the criteria for selection or justify the inclusion of one item over another. The introduction claims that the focus is on the pictorial arts, itself an ambiguous term, and the definition offered does not enlighten the reader. Is it visual, is it figurative, is it simply traditional media?

These might be important questions, were it not for the fact that so little of the book is actually about the art. Instead the focus, as the introduction further declares, is … “not about visual sources per se, rather it is about how art has been discussed since the seventeenth century and into the twenty-first century”. The organisation of the book into four sections sounds promising but is actually confusing since much of the content could be accommodated under any of the headings offered. One of the sections, “The Wider World”, might lead you to expect real insights into the plight of migrant artists/critics/collectors, as revealed, for example in John Quinn’s copious papers about every aspect of Irish art in the early decades of the twentieth century, William Mulready’s attempts to hide his Irishness so that it wouldn’t impede his career, Frederick William Burton’s leadership at  the National Gallery, London, the Doyle brothers’ writings on art, Sydney Nolan’s thoughts about Irishness and his contribution to Australian modernism, or artist Ellen Gallagher’s comments on Afro-Irish-American identity and many others, and most importantly, in a section with this title, something of the rich discourse coming from new migrant communities making art in Ireland now. Instead, this section, despite the valuable material it includes, seems like a catch-all without a clear sense of what it could contain.

It would appear that the editors tried to cover a wide range of attitudes to documenting art, making it, marketing it, creating audiences for it and critically spotlighting the issues that artists either address or fail to address – an incredibly ambitious task. They succeed well in drawing attention to those issues through the inclusion of a single text on the subject (whether it be in the form of a comic drama, letters, inscription on an eighteenth century print, notes from a parliamentary debate or formal critical writing), but the spread of their material over such a wide range of topics and issues, over a timeframe of three-hundred-odd years, makes it all, of necessity, appear a bit thin. On the other hand the usefulness of this and its predecessor makes one wish for a less handsome book, but one that combines the best of both books, more on the lines of Rifkin and Ryan, with a clear sense of what each section relates to and with the inclusion of a section of writing on art exclusively by artists on all aspects of their work.


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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