Modernity presented in isolation


No fascism, no communism, no second World War – the convulsions that gripped Ireland during the years of the modernist movement were more local in character, as Imma’s ambitious exhibition reveals, writes GEMMA TIPTON

THE EXHIBITION The Modernsat the Irish Museum of Modern Art (Imma) is one of the museum’s most ambitious and interesting presentations of late, and yet its very ambition creates problems. Perhaps these are difficulties that are bound to beset any attempt to scrutinise one of the most fascinating periods in art history.

Another recent effort, Modernism, at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in 2006, was a wider undertaking, even though its scope was limited to the years 1914-1939. The show put the V&A’s considerable resources to work in an attempt to address the social and political implications of modernism alongside examples of the period’s art and design.

Never conceived of as a style, modernism was more a loose collection of ideas. Nevertheless there was a utopianism at the heart of it: even the dates the V&A decided on were a disquieting reminder of how the movement’s belief in the power and perfectibility of mankind was implicated in the rise of fascism and the global cataclysm that was the second World War.

Very little sense of revolution or war makes its way into the Imma exhibition, an absence probably reflecting the Ireland of the time, which was more concerned with establishing its role as an independent state. Instead, our amazement is directed to the realisation that we in Ireland produced such a wealth of wonderful work.

Exploring the works on show at The ModernsI was first struck by the extraordinary sense of how some of Ireland’s pioneering artists – Jack B Yeats, Paul Henry, Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone – recreated the grey and gritty Ireland of the 1920s in a series of new and glowing idioms. There are Yeats’s scenes in pubs, at funerals, at horse races; Henry’s landscapes, so idealised that he was taken up as a propagandist for de Valera’s emerging Ireland; and Jellett and Hone’s reinterpretation of that omnipresent symbol in Irish society, the crucifix, in glorious geometric colour forms.

Reminders of grey and gritty Ireland are provided courtesy of the interspersed photographs curated by the Gallery of Photography, which offer voyeuristic glimpses into the world these artists sprang from (although later, in a flash of John Hinde colour, I realised that the greyness of black-and-white photography itself had coloured my understanding of the images). Here, the medium is definitely, and definitively, the message. However, the lack of a stronger connection to the world’s unfolding upheavals starts to make the emphasis on Ireland feel a little parochial, and made me begin to wish for something more.

Some confusing labelling is a problem, one which was exacerbated on my first visit to the show, in late November, by the fact that text panels had not yet arrived. Knowing that Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone had studied with André Lhote, and been very much in awe of him, made sense of the inclusion of one of Lhote’s paintings in the room containing the majority of their works. Coming upon an Oskar Kokoscha work amid the evolving style and drama of Jack Yeats’s paintings, however, made me wonder whether a similar relationship had existed between these two artists. Returning in January I learnt from the newly arrived texts that Yeats and Kokoscha were merely acquainted.

Installing exhibitions is a difficult art at the best of times. With Imma’s didactic layout – the corridors and their parallel series of rooms forcing you into a linear narrative – it’s even harder. At The Modernsthe most satisfying spaces are the room sets where, for example, Eileen Gray’s fabulous furniture is presented with Jellett’s works, giving an idea of the search for the Gesamkunstwerk (the “total work of art” created by harmonising art, design and architecture) that pervaded the spirit of the age.

Less satisfying is the Yeats-Kokoscha connection, and later on a Louis le Brocquy head ( Image of Anne, 1974) turns up alongside some Francis Bacons, as if to say “me too!”.

Given the success of the presentation of Gray’s work, which was a highlight, it would have been good to see more made of the influence of design, and of Kilkenny Design Workshops (KDW) in particular. The story and influence of KDW is as vital a part of the emerging story of Irish visual aesthetics as anything in The Moderns, and it’s a great shame not to discover more of it here.

A full catalogue of The Modernswill not be published until February, when part of the exhibition closes, but this month a useful booklet, consisting of the information panel texts, has been produced. In the introduction to this booklet, Imma director Enrique Juncosa writes that “it has very often been said that modernism did not really happen in Ireland, but clearly a lot of the best art produced here demonstrates a knowledge and awareness of international ideas, even if those were filtered through or tinted with local myths, beliefs, traditions, history or politics”. As presented, The Moderns is not the story of modernism in Ireland but rather a history of Irish artists grappling with the 20th century. It shows the various trends they tried out, responding to the influences they encountered.

In this context the explorations of Mainie Jellett, Evie Hone and Mary Swanzy were incredibly brave.

Ignoring the story of the global tumult of the second World War means the incoming influence of artists such as Kenneth Hall and Basil Rákóczi, who formed the White Stag Group after settling in Ireland to escape the war, is alluded to but not fully explored.

Although it is fascinating to see early works by artists such as Patrick Scott, Michael Kane, Gerard Dillon, William Scott and Colin Middleton, what The Modernsmost emphasises, ultimately, is the insularity of Ireland at the time. As the show extends into Imma’s West Wing, the focus becomes more scattered and The Moderns’ relationship to modernism is further dissolved in an increasingly disparate selection, albeit of many wonderful works. Here modernism becomes postmodernism, then fragments still further. Artists such as Joseph Kosuth and Dennis Oppenheim seem to have been included because they once exhibited at Imma and have works in the museum’s collection.

Better are the rooms in the Gordon Lambert Galleries in the courtyard, where the work of artists such as Robert Ballagh, FE McWilliam, Brian O’Doherty (Patrick Ireland) and Oisín Kelly responds to the Troubles. At this point it feels as though Irish art has become a social, as well as an aesthetic, force once again.

Who knows? Maybe Oppenheim and Kosuth do have a place in the tale for, as Imma celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, perhaps the story of Imma is set to become the story of Irish art. Certainly what we know as art history is based on the works that have survived in collections. It is only afterwards that the stories are told.

The Moderns closes in stages, on Feb 13 , Mar 13 and April 3