Writing Art in Ireland: c.1890-1930, an exhibition at the Old Library, Trinity College Dublin, running until January 2017
Eagles bite capitals; foxes chase hares through thickets of letters; embracing men and women begin paragraphs; snakes, winding around themselves, grimly fasten on their own tails to form a looping initial. Famously, the Book of Kells intertwines art and writing as inextricably as can be imagined. Upstairs in Trinity College Library’s august Long Room, a new exhibition, Writing Art in Ireland: c.1890-1930 (with online version available), showcases how in more recent times art and writing continue to intertwine.
This is no esoteric, specialist field either. Quietly, the curators of the exhibition, Tom Walker and Jack Quinn, assemble a convincing case that art writing made a revolution in Ireland’s visual consciousness. In this anniversary year we are reminded, by Patrick Pearse’s articles in An Claidheamh Soluis, of his sense that visual art might be an “expression of Ireland”. Yet more than this the exhibition shows how writing about art helped create a new image of modernity, as well as helping picture a new state. Crucially, the exhibition demonstrates how these impulses, national and modern, were less at odds than had been thought. Modern art was not foreign to the new nation. Five cogent display cases exploring the variety and depth of art criticism, as well as art practice, reveal a rich new perspective.
As ever, art went backwards to go forwards. The vital reappraisal of early Christian art in Ireland is represented by Margaret Stokes’s illustrations of the kind of techniques that illuminate the Book of Kells, while Thomas Bodkin’s writings on Harry Clarke show how much he learnt from this interplay of word and image. But the display also registers the shock of the new. Ellen Duncan’s Dublin version of Roger Fry’s revolutionary London show Manet and the Post-Impressionists (which caused Virginia Woolf to say “on around December 1910 human character changed”) and then her astonishing curation of Cubism’s Irish debut in Modern French Painting at the United Arts Club, featuring canvases from Picasso and Juan Gris, show how new art can change minds. It can open them too: a beautifully presented but incendiary Tower Press booklet from the novelist George Moore, Reminiscences of the Impressionist Painters, urges its audience after the example of Manet’s painting to banish all embarrassment in art and life. In other words, sex might be admitted to art. Importing such apparently foreign notions met resistance. As JM Synge said after the Playboy riots, “on the French stage you get sex without its balancing elements: on the Irish stage you get the other elements without sex. I restored sex and the people were so surprised they saw the sex only.” Perhaps then it is no surprise that sexuality was so central to this artistic revolution. A highlight of the exhibition is Oliver Shepperd’s intimate sculpture of a sleeping nymph (quite a different prospect from his statue in the GPO, The Death of Cúchulain, on whose buttocks Samuel Beckett, in his 1938 novel Murphy, has a character symbolically beat his head). Women, however, feature prominently here as artists and critics, not just as models and muses. Mainie Jellett is represented by a poised abstract watercolour, while Ella Young’s visit to Mia Cranwell’s metal workshop underscores the place of crafts and applied art in this story, and, by the by, its connection with poetry. The exhibition thus also scotches the myth that the prominent position of Irish writing somehow retarded the progress of Irish art. Cecil Salkeld might plump for a kind of figurative primitivism over pure abstraction, but the tone and typography of his illustrated piece in To-morrow (a short-lived journal co-founded with Francis Stuart and WB Yeats) confirm that if these new aesthetics aspired to be distinctively Irish, they were anything but backward-looking.
Not that the Irish Free State was an artistic idyll. Altogether the exhibition paints a new picture of Ireland as thoroughly engaged with if not always entirely convinced by modern European art, and the exhibition closes just as censorship was beginning to bite, and Cúchulain’s buttocks received their resigned headbutts. Still, as (admittedly paternalistic) sponsor of cultural institutions, the new Free State puts later governments to shame. Even the 1932 Saorstát Éireann Official Handbook, its technicolour cover recalling the Book of Kells, is a reminder how much writing and thinking about art laid the foundations for its existence.
There are omissions, inevitable in such an exclusive show. Hugh Lane and his legacy get their due, with one case devoted to his exhibitions and the controversy over his bequest that so embarrassed relations between Britain and the Irish government. Still, WB Yeats’s public work on the commissioning of the new state’s coinage is perhaps too familiar, while his private commissioning of young artists like Norah McGuinness still perhaps too unfamiliar. The place of the book as art object, and the influence of Irish art writing abroad perhaps merit further reflection. The New York letters of the painter John Butler Yeats, which did so much to affect the artistic consciousness of modernist poets (not only his son WB, but Ezra Pound and TS Eliot too) might have opened to view the newly ekphrastic emphasis of modern European and American writing; but then his fatherly input into a series of Dublin exhibitions of European and Irish art is carefully recorded, and the distinctive work of his more tight-lipped son Jack B Yeats marked by a beautifully illustrated George Russell review. (As so often, despite years of revisionism, the Yeats family, including the sisters’ pioneering Cuala Industries, is an integral part of this story.) Of the tumultuous tale of modern Irish art there is more to say, and more to see. But this is only to demand a sequel to the exhibition, whose exemplary layout is a delight and education to the many visitors it receives, fresh from admiring those artful creatures hunting among Gospel verses. If the eagles of the Book of Kells bite letters, we must be thankful that when it came to considering art Irish writers did not bite their tongues.