Culture Shock: Subversive glory of Ireland’s arts and crafts movement
Harry Clarke and Richard King created profoundly questioning work
The Baptism of St Patrick: Harry Clarke’s stained-glass art is deeply questioning. St Patrick is haggard and weary; the image seems to invite us to wonder about his anxiety and about what would come after him
A room in the Bapst Art Library at Boston College has a rather extraordinary double stained glass window. Boston College is a Jesuit institution, and it was a Jesuit priest, Fr Terence Connolly, director of its libraries, who commissioned the windows from the Dalkey-based artist Richard King.
King, born in Mayo in 1907, was a protege of the great Dublin stained-glass artist Harry Clarke. Connolly and King worked closely on agreeing the themes for the windows, and one half of King’s stunning creation does look like something you might expect in a Catholic institution. A majestic Christ, arrayed like a mediaeval bishop, is crushing the head of Satan beneath his feet. St Patrick, St Colmcille and St Brigid are to his left-hand side.
But the other window is what makes the whole thing startling. It is composed very obviously as a direct parallel to the image of Jesus conquering Satan. And who is Jesus paired with? The god Lugh, crushing the head of Balor of the Evil Eye. The figures of Patrick, Colmcille and Brigid are mirrored by Cú Cuchulain, Fergus, the mythical king of Ulster, and Medb, the warrior queen of Connacht. The message could not be clearer: Irish paganism and Irish Christianity are spiritual twins. It is, to put it mildly, a rather arresting notion for such an orthodox setting. Expressed through King’s vivid, shimmering blues and reds, it gives the whole work a trippy, almost psychedelic feel. Put it this way: if you saw the images on the cover of an acid-rock album in 1972, they wouldn’t have seemed out of place.
But would you call King’s work arts and crafts? It is undoubtedly a late product of the Irish arts-and-crafts movement; King is in a line from Clarke through Wilhelmina Geddes. It’s just that there is something conjured up by that phrase “arts and crafts”, some tinge of fusty earnestness that seems utterly at odds with work like this.
But as the groundbreaking exhibition The Arts and Crafts Movement: Making It Irish, at the McMullen Museum of Art in Boston, makes clear, it is time to put aside such prejudices. The arts-and-crafts movement, which flourished in Ireland between the early 1890s and the late 1920s, is one of the glories of Irish creativity. And far from being earnest or backward-looking, its best products are vibrant, strange, subversive and starkly modern.
It is something of a national disgrace that we do not, in general, know this. The Boston exhibition, superbly curated by Vera Kreilkamp and Diana Larsen, is, as far as I know, the first of its kind; there has been no major retrospective on the movement at any of our public galleries.
This is not for want of scholarship: Virginia Teehan, Nicola Gordon Bowe, Kelly Sullivan, Paul Larmour and others have drawn scholarly attention to the riches of the movement. Gordon Bowe’s book on Geddes, for example, was arguably the most distinguished Irish publication of last year. But there still seems to be some strange snobbery, some notion that “fine art” is more important than anything tainted with mere craft, that places a cordon around these national treasures.
Maybe some of the reluctance has to do with the unfashionable nature of religious imagery. The masterpiece of the movement is the Honan Chapel at University College Cork, in which architecture, metalwork, mosaics, stained glass, furniture and textiles combine into a single vision. Its opening, 100 years ago, in 1916, can be seen as a statement of the centrality of Catholicism to Irishness at what turned out to be a strategic historic moment. But in fact it is not at all triumphalist; the aesthetic is one of restraint, even severity. The Boston exhibition shows altar cloths and clerical robes designed by Katharine MacCormack and Ethel Josephine Scully: their beauty is geometric, organic and far from lavish.
In fact, even in taking on religious imagery, the arts-and-crafts movement could be quite subversive in its modernity. Jack Yeats’s sodality banner of St Colmcille, made by the Dun Emer Guild for Loughrea Cathedral, uses a language of visual minimalism that is almost Japanese. Harry Clarke’s The Baptism of St Patrick, lent to Boston by the National College of Art and Design, is deeply questioning. St Patrick is haggard and weary and has his eyes closed. The six other figures, whose eyes meet ours, are presumably those who will follow him, and they look a pretty rum bunch, shifty and sensual. The image seems to invite us to wonder about St Patrick’s anxiety and about what would come after him.
But in a simpler sense the Boston exhibition asks us to open our eyes. Here was a remarkable flourishing of Irish creativity, shared equally by men and women, Protestants and Catholics. It needs to be seen.