Pictures at an RHA exhibition
You’ll spot all the traditional subjects at the 180th RHA Annual Exhibition, but landscape remains our preferred genre, writes AIDAN DUNNE
IN THE PAST, European arts academies ordained a hierarchy of painterly subjects, a set of five genres encompassing all important aspects of painting. History painting occupied pole position, then came portraiture, genre paintings of everyday life, landscape and, at the bottom of the heap, still life. The academies, with their roots in classical antiquity, came to pride themselves on their status as teaching institutions and upholders of enduring values. That “enduring” proved a bit of a problem.
As the academies sought to tighten their grip on the artistic scene they engendered dissenters, usually exemplified by the French Impressionists, in open revolt against academic strictures. The more the academy sought to fix and pin things down, the greater the impetus for change. One source of contention was the strict hierarchy of genres. These categories trumped any considerations of artistic quality. No matter how well painted your still life, it was inferior to a history painting, and that was that.
Does the hierarchy of genres still pertain? Not really. Changes have been wrought within each by fashion and by technology. Yet the general areas of subject matter do endure, and the vast majority of the works in this year’s RHA Annual Exhibition – the 180th – fit within the generic parameters, though often with a contemporary twist.
Usually relating to everyday life, and often to communal social activities, genre painting has sometimes been pushed towards cuteness and sentimentality in modern times. But it is still capable of being a vehicle for much more than that, and it remains a vibrant, versatile way of dealing with subject matter. Diana Copperwhite’s Real Time, a painting fizzing with energy, explores our absorption in the virtual space, and virtual worlds, of electronic imagery. Martin Gale’s meticulously realist paintings offer oblique but still recognisable snippets of daily life, as in Saturday Evening, Nearing the City, his view of cars coming down from the Dublin Mountains in fading evening light, the expanse of the city spread out before them. Similarly, Colin Martin hints at stories we can guess at in passing glimpses. Michael Cullen’s exuberant paintings view life as theatre. Jack Pakenham does, too, usually with a much darker edge. Gene Lambert’s Pantomimeis an abstracted crowd scene that is a worthy descendant of Bruegel. Veronica Bolay paints landscapes, but always with a sense of deep narrative involvement.
It often seems that landscape is the default setting for Irish painting. Yet in the generic rankings it fared badly until, thanks mainly to the fantastic achievements of a number of exceptional artists, including Turner, Constable, Corot and, of course, the French Impressionists, it became the dominant 19th-century form of painting. On balance it remains the dominant genre in the RHA, and there is a wealth of fine landscape in the exhibition. The range and variety of the works underline how the genre has diversified and developed to encompass numerous approaches. You have Brett McEntagart and Carey Clarke excelling at the straight, traditional slant. Equally, there’s David Crone’s Frozen Pond, in which the outer landscape of the garden in winter becomes an inner, imaginative space. Simon Burch and Jackie Nickerson show that photography is a rich means of addressing landscape. Eithne Jordan, Stephen McKenna and Donald Teskey have fine treatments of the urban landscape. Texture and time figure in Mary Loan, Jim Savage and Vivienne Roche’s work. John McHugh’s terrific sculptural assemblage is another way of doing landscape, an ingenious exploration of Achill Island steeped in history and atmosphere.
As with all the classic academic genres, but more so, the advent of photography from the mid 19th century onwards had a huge impact on history painting. From early in the 20th century virtually all the iconic historical images were captured through the camera lens. There are exceptions, and Picasso’s Guernicais probably the biggest and best, with a symbolic power on a scale somehow beyond the photographic. Hughie O’Donoghue shows a relatively small work in the RHA this year, but he is one of relatively few contemporary artists to convincingly attempt history painting in the grand sense of the term. Aindréas Scholz’s photograph of the new Lansdowne Road stadium plays with a sense of scale. It’s a huge subject, but the image is not at all huge, and it’s photographed in such a way that the crowds, and the setting, come across as tiny and toy-like. In a more traditional vein, Patrick Pye takes on the iconic Christian theme of the crucifixion of Christ. Some academicians still feel abstract art is beyond the pale, yet abstraction has been included in the RHA exhibition for several years. And it can be argued that abstraction, with its capacity to engage with profound, transcendent questions, has taken on part of the role of history painting in previous centuries. Look to works by Makiko Nakamura, Clea Van Der Grijn, Timothy Hawkesworth and Mary Fitzgerald this year.
Photography muscled in on portraiture from the moment of its invention. Portrait subjects had traditionally been wealthy, powerful or renowned. Already a minor industry had developed to broaden this limited customer base, but the sheer ease of photography did away with miniaturists and silhouettists. Given which, it is surprising how popular the painted portrait is as a genre. It is extremely well represented in the RHA show. What’s happened is that there has been a revival, starting in the recent past. People have come to value the way the sustained attention of the painter differs from the click of the shutter release. It’s not so much the likeness that is sought as something more than mere likeness. The subject of Cristina Brunello’s superb Portrait of a Young Girl in Hoodremains anonymous, but the work speaks volumes. It’s a gem of a painting that recalls Leonardo’s few pictures of young women. Some of the artists whose work reinvigorates the genre are Una Sealy, Eoin Mac Lochlainn, Miseon Lee, Neil Shawcross and Genieve Figgis. Meanwhile, the official portrait, commemorating status and achievement, is still there. Not without reason, James Hanley has been described as Ireland’s unofficial official portrait painter, and his tally in this year’s show is striking and impressive.
Still life has a long and honourable record in European painting, but the academies pushed it to the lowest rung of the generic ladder.
It bounced back with the Impressionists and the Post-Impressionists, and it was, if you follow a line from Cézanne to Braque and Picasso, the definitive cubist subject. It remains a popular form of representational painting, open to apparently endless reinvention. Just look at Allyson Keehan’s virtuoso Purple Satin in Blue Light,a work of great poise and authority that encourages us to dwell on an expanse of fabric in a calm, almost meditative way.
Pat Harris’s Floweris a contemporary take on the tradition of the vanitas still life, with its intimations of transience and mortality. It’s a trace, an echo of something we’re not even sure of any more. Maeve McCarthy’s series of paintings focuses on a number of vessels individually. The more traditional still life is in evidence as well, but, as with all the genres, it’s encouraging to see that there is life after tradition.
The RHA Annual Exhibition is at the RHA Gallagher Gallery, Dublin 2, until July 31st