Three-way shuffle at the National
Three exhibits, drawn from the National Gallery’s permanent collection, mask the major refurbishment work that the gallery is undertaking and give just a glimpse into new director Sean Rainbird’s plans
LAST WEEK saw the launch of three new displays at the National Gallery of Ireland. All three represent distinct, individual exhibitions, but it makes sense to describe them as displays because they are drawn chiefly from the gallery’s permanent collection rather than being specially imported. Due to ongoing, extensive refurbishment work in the Dargan and Milltown wings, the gallery has temporarily lost a great deal of its exhibition space, which makes it all the more important, really, that people want to see what actually makes it onto the remaining walls.
Besides which, the National Gallery’s new director, Sean Rainbird, is just a few months in the job and, whatever the level of his input, the three new shows can be seen as his first real chance to reshuffle the deck of cards that is the overall collection. And he’s dealt a pretty good hand.
Ideally located in the heart of the city, the gallery is a magnet for visitors, even operating with severely reduced facilities. The Merrion Square entrance is closed off, and the only way in and out is through the Clare St door of the Millennium Wing. Make your way in there and you first encounter the shop on the left and the restaurant on the right – rather than art per se.
The shop, it should be said, is exceptionally good. It’s thoughtfully and comprehensively stocked including, for example, a range of novels on art-related themes. The restaurant is perpetually busy and noisy. Press on further, and it’s gratifying to see that the galleries are generally packed with visitors.
Headlining the new displays is Jack of all Trades in the Print Gallery, a substantial show featuring 63 of the cartoons and illustrations Jack B Yeats contributed to Punch, the satirical magazine, from 1910. He did so quietly, under the pseudonym of W Bird, notching up over 500 works throughout the succeeding decades. He never owned up to being the Bird in question, notes the gallery’s Yeats archivist Pauline Swords, who co-curated the exhibition.
Yeats’s Punch drawings are backed up by press and periodical illustrations and cartoons by several other Irish artists, including Matthew James Lawless, Aloysius O’Kelly and Richard Thomas Moynan. They provide a context for the Yeats drawings and the context is, broadly, that illustration performed a practical function in the print media that was, gradually at first and then swiftly and completely, taken over by photography and photographic reproduction.
At least, that is the case in relation to the work of the other artists, a great deal of which has to do with reportage and documentation. It is actually less true of Yeats, whose drawings fit into the Punch tradition of relatively benign humorous illustration, in keeping with, say, the comic range of PG Wodehouse.
While the gallery was certainly right to buy the 63 pieces in 2004, they don’t provide a startling new slant on Yeats as an artist. Before he moved to Ireland around 1910 he had worked for many years as a jobbing illustrator, a very good and successful one. The Punch drawings are well worth a look. They’re the work of a seasoned pro and there are some felicitous touches in several but overall there is also a routine, workaday quality about them.