Report from Ireland

When James Johnson Sweeney curated the first international exhibition of late Modernism here in 1967, which later became known as ROSC, he decided not to include any art from Ireland after 800 A.D. He was attempting to reconnect the island to the ancestral visual civilizations on the continent of Europe, as a different starting point than the late modernism inherited from a contested and all too problematic colonial history.

Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin

However, within the range of art institutions here, the Royal Hibernian Academy continues the titular incarnation of the traditional 19th-century satellite. In some ways the magnetic influence of London has been diluted, initially by New York, and more recently by Berlin.

There are only a handful of private galleries, possibly six depending on the criteria used, for contemporary art in the city of Dublin, with three public museum spaces. The National Gallery houses the usual provincial 19th-century mix of old masters and neo-classical pieces, some of which are outstanding. Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane is essentially the gift of the art dealer which bears its name, who sold old masters but collected late-19th century moderns. It has a substantial collection of modern art, including the London studio of the Dublin-born painter Francis Bacon. The Irish Museum of Modern Art has a substantial collection of late modernist and more contemporary work, mostly Irish, and has been the venue for some remarkable traveling shows as well as now generating partnerships with other international museums. Besides these, Trinity College—the oldest university on the island, founded in the 16th century—has a very curious pairing, a ’60s Brutalist underground art gallery, and a very recent Science Gallery. The former, the Douglas Hyde Gallery, has had a singular vision over recent decades which has garnered much international praise; the latter is a very well endowed corporate educational tool for the multinationals that fund it.

In the last 20 years the government has facilitated the growth of regional art centers, mostly theaters with limited visual art spaces. There are two significant exceptions: the art centers in Navan, a market town near to the megalithic splendors of New Grange, and a spectacular exhibition space named Visual in another market town in Carlow, about 100 miles south of Dublin.

The four remaining cities of the island also have significant art spaces. As these, like Dublin, are all Viking sites, they are obviously around the sea. In Cork, the second city of the island, the local university has an excellent space, initially funded by the Glucksman family of New York, and the city museum, the Crawford Art Gallery, which has a delightful, eclectic mixture of collections. The other provincial cities have assorted museums and art galleries, which occasionally show touring exhibitions from Dublin, and other assorted regional art. The exceptions are Limerick and Belfast, the former hosting EVA, an international art biennial, and Belfast, which has such eclectic gems as the Ulster Museum, the MAC—a new contemporary space—and two significant galleries, Golden Thread Gallery and the Fenderensky Gallery.

Artist-run spaces have developed here since the 1960s, of which the foundation of Project Studios and the Temple Bar Gallery + Studios have both developed into national institutions and are no longer run by artists, but still reflect the movements in the international contemporary art scene. In the last few decades, many more artist-run spaces have emerged, run by enthusiastic graduates and now mid-career artists, and some have been able to sustain themselves despite the major cuts in public funding.

Going back to 1949, when the former chief art critic for the Studio in London and soon-to-be director of the National Gallery of Ireland, Thomas MacGreevy, and the writer and former guerrilla war leader Ernie O’Malley, along with the New York critic James Johnson Sweeney, all attended the inauguration of the International Association of Art Critics in Paris. MacGreevy subsequently became the first president of the Irish chapter. He was an acknowledged literary and fine art critic, and also a friend and collaborator of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett in Paris, as was Sweeney when, as editor of Transition, he published both Irish writers.

But to understand the history of art criticism in Ireland, you also have to understand the part played by modernist architects who came to be more influential than their contemporaries in art. The architect Michael Scott persuaded James Johnson Sweeney to curate the ROSC exhibition mentioned in the introduction above. Eventually art from Ireland was included in what became a quadrennial exhibition, but not until Sweeney’s departure. The architects had studied with Mies van der Rohe and others in the U.S., and were determined to bring a sense of international modernism to Ireland. Previous influences from Paris had been subsumed into a pastiche of decorative cubism and the traditions of academic fine art. The architects wanted an art that reflected the space and scale of their new buildings, and thus became a significant influence on art criticism here.

The architectural firm Scott Tallon Walker exerted this influence, as when Dorothy Walker of that firm subsequently became president of AICA Ireland, and then chair of ROSC by 1980. Her international art network brought many luminaries to Ireland, most memorably at the fractious public symposium in 1980 with Clement Greenberg and Ivan Ilych. The New York critic Donald Kuspit became a regular contributor to catalogue essays and art criticism on Irish artists and in collaboration with writers here, myself included.

The traditional exhibition review, a descriptive format with occasional opinion for newspapers and magazines, has been the standard mechanism for art criticism throughout the island since the 19th century. This really didn’t change with the dramatic enhancement of modernism over academic art after ROSC. Dorothy Walker herself wrote a conventional magazine review for many years. The critics of these newspaper reviews were conservative connoisseurs of another era. Her influence on a group of younger art writers throughout the late ’80s and ’90s, cannot be understated, as she mentored young critics, introducing them to the world of international art. Her friendship with the Irish art critic and artist Brian O’Doherty, who wrote for the New York Times and is well known for his seminal essay on the white cube, was a significant influence on conversations and engagements with then nascent critics. I count myself fortunate to have been amongst them.

The idea of art criticism in Ireland as an intellectual aspect of culture now could be seen as a rather feeble reflection of prevailing international fashions. The recent economic collapse of the island’s economy, due to the banking chaos of 2008, has reduced all state funding for the visual arts. There is essentially no meaningful private philanthropic support for museums or public galleries, and thus even the meager opportunities to write catalogue essays have disappeared, along with printed invitation cards to new openings, as a cost saving measure. There are some interesting developments, however which are explored in the following interview.

Contributor

Ciarán Bennett

Ciarán BENNETT Born in Dublin and graduated in Fine Art in 1979, postgraduate studies in Bath, Paris, and Florence, lived in Asia for some years. Became art critic for the Irish Architect in 1994- journal of the Royal Institute of Architects in Ireland, and joined AICA Ireland, elected president in 2006. Received Pollock Krasner Research Fellowship 07-08, for his project on James Johnson Sweeney. Curated various exhibitions, at museums and galleries, including curatorial panels for European art projects, while being a visiting tutor at SVA in New York.

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