1890 - 1930

Writing Art in Ireland

The Library of Trinity College Dublin

Irish texts responding to the visual arts 

The late nineteenth century through to the mid-twentieth saw a surge of artistic activity in Ireland. Irish writers, including W.B. Yeats and James Joyce, achieved global renown. Against a backdrop of tumultuous constitutional change, cultural revival was also of notable importance to many key political actors. However, the role of the visual arts in this vibrant passage of history has been less well appreciated. Tracing how the visual arts were intertwined with other art forms, as well as considering the terms in which they were defended and debated, this exhibition presents some of the ways in which art was written about in Ireland at this time.
The Rebirth of the Old  
Many artists and commentators looked to the Irish past as a means of bringing about a visually richer present. They also sought to establish the visual arts as a reflection of national character. 

Margaret Stokes was a leading authority on medieval Irish art. Her evocative writing and skills as an illustrator helped re-imagine Ireland’s visual past as a basis for forging a modern artistic identity.

From 1903 to 1909, Patrick Pearse was the editor of the Gaelic League newspaper An Claidheamh Soluis. He wrote articles on an array of topics, including education, politics, religion, literature and art. Having pointed to the growth of national revivals in literature and industry, he here asks if art is yet ‘an expression of Ireland’.

Pearse finds such national feeling in the work of Oliver Sheppard, ‘a great Irish sculptor’.

The poet and painter Æ (George Russell) was one of Ireland’s key artistic figures during the period. In this 1908 article, he explains that in Jack Yeats’s drawings he has seen ‘for the first time something which could be called altogether Gaelic’.

The poet Ella Young here catalogues the workshop of Irish metalworker Mia Cranwill. Young notes that several items were inspired by poems or lines from W.B. Yeats and Æ.

The adjacent photograph of Cranwill’s rings, brooches and reliquaries show her commitment to a revivalist style inspired by medieval Celtic designs.

The Shock of the New 
The arrival from abroad of new artistic techniques and sensibilities often proved provocative. Challenging longstanding aesthetic and moral values, for some certain works seemed scarcely to be art at all. For others, the innovations of foreign artists promised to give an impetus to the forging of a distinctly modern national artistic identity. 

The novelist George Moore had trained as an artist in Paris in the 1870s and come to know several painters associated with Impressionism.

This pamphlet is the text of a lecture given by Moore in 1904. He shocked his Dublin audience by stressing that paintings such as Édouard Manet’s Eva Gonzales were what the morally suppressed Irish capital needed: ‘That portrait is an article of faith. It says: “Be not ashamed of anything.”’

Irish newspapers and periodicals initially responded to Mainie Jellett’s abstract art with horror. Æ (George Russell) writing in The Irish Statesman in 1923 described Jellett as ‘a late victim to Cubism in some sub-section of this artistic malaria’.

In this 1932 article, Jellett defends her art as part of an alternative tradition to the mimetic representation dominant in the ‘Post-Renaissance West’. Her abstracted aesthetic, she argues, has more in common with ‘Indian, Egyptian, Chinese, Gothic and Celtic’ forms.

To-morrow was a short-lived literary and artistic magazine that consciously courted controversy. Having recently returned from training in Germany, where he had come into contact with the Neue Sachlichkeit (new objectivity) movement, the artist Cecil Salkeld here takes issue with Cubist artists ‘who maintain that Painting must be the contrast of purely abstract forms’.

Making Ireland
As Ireland moved towards and finally obtained independence from Britain, the role the visual arts would play in relation to the nation’s development was much discussed. 

This official government handbook from 1902 outlined Ireland’s chief economic resources. Alongside such sections as ‘the geographical and physiographical features of the country’, and the ‘economic distribution of the population’, it turns its attention to the provision for art education across Ireland.

Robert Elliott in Art and Ireland (1907) called for the Church to support native Irish artists when decorating its buildings. He writes of this relief by John Hughes: ‘It is, in the most forceful language that I can command – the work of an artist. It infects one with a feeling of a great and sorrowful joy.’

The poet Thomas MacGreevy was also an important writer on the visual arts. Printed just over a month after the ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty by the Dáil in 1922, this early article looks forward to the emergence amid Irish independence of ‘a genuinely Irish school … if political circumstances allow’.

After Dublin Corporation had failed to support the construction of a new building for the gallery of modern art in 1913, Hugh Lane removed his collection of continental paintings from the city. He died aboard the torpedoed liner the Lusitania only two years later, having in his will bequeathed these works to London’s National Gallery.

In a subsequent unwitnessed codicil, however, Lane had stated that the paintings should, after all, be given to Dublin. Years of legal and diplomatic wrangling over the fate of the pictures ensued. In 1931, President W.T. Cosgrave approached Thomas Bodkin, then director of the National Gallery of Ireland, to write an account of Lane and his pictures on behalf of the Free State.

Produced by the government of the Free State to mark the first decade of its existence, this 1932 handbook is a work of art in its own right. Its mapping of a remarkably wide range of aspects of Irish life and history includes chapters entitled ‘Early Christian Art in Ireland’, ‘Modern Irish Art’ and ‘Irish Architecture’.

Tom Walker & Jack Quin
Credits: Story

Curation:Tom Walker and Jack Quin, School of English.

Technical assistance: Greg Sheaf, Digital Systems and Services.

Imaging: Gillian Whelan, Digital Resources and Imaging Services.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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