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CULTURE SHOCK:Many of the paintings of 19th-century rural Ireland that hang in a Boston exhibition aren’t particularly great. But that frees us up to look at them in a different way and gives depth and context to domestic scenes that look naive or kitschy to the modern eye

THEY SHOULDN’T BE nearly as moving as they are. The 19th-century paintings of the interiors of Irish cottages in the superb Rural Ireland: The Inside Story exhibition at the McMullen Museum of Art, in Boston, are not great art.

They largely belong to an international fashion for depicting the lives of a peasantry that seemed exotic to those who had long since climbed out of it. So why should this kind of painting acquire, in the Irish context, a genuine emotional charge? Because, of course, the Irish rural interior is such a hard-won and fragile space. It is a search for stability in a woefully unstable world, a dream of security in a system that denied security of tenure to tenants.

The domestic sphere can’t be taken for granted: it may be abandoned in mass emigration, an awareness that haunts even an apparently simple image such as James Brenan’s News from America (1875). Or it may be invaded and torn asunder as in Harry Jones Thaddeus’s An Irish Eviction (1889), in which the action is seen from what should be the private, domestic space inside the cottage. Domesticity in the Irish context isn’t banal or cosy. It is a struggle for dignity and survival.

In Irish circumstances, interiors could easily become exteriors, as the furniture and fittings were turfed out on to the roads and fields. Things that should be indoors could suddenly find themselves in a harsh, exposed outdoors.

The excellent catalogue for the exhibition, edited by Vera Kreilkamp, includes a haunting drawing by Aloysius O’Kelly, who made some of the more iconic paintings of the era, such as Mass in a Connemara Cabin.

Done for the Illustrated London News in 1886, during the second land war, it is called All That Is Left: Scene at a Mayo Eviction. It shows the way realism can shade into surrealism in the Irish context. In front of a miserable thatched cottage, a frail-looking young girl sits in the driving west-of-Ireland rain. But she is sitting on what was, before the eviction, the kitchen table. There is a saucepan on the table beside her and a creel filled with the family’s pots and crockery under it. A stool and a chair, both lying on their sides, are the subtle reminders of the violence and disorder that have torn these tokens of domesticity from their proper context. The image is as shocking in its own way as a picture of a body with its guts hanging out: the cottage in the background has had its domestic entrails exposed.

It is this kind of counterimage that creates for so-called genre painting in Ireland the friction that drives it beyond banality. It can never quite settle into the comfortably picturesque. You look, in this exhibition, at a painting such as Interior of an Irish Cottage with Uileann Piper. It seems quite sweet and naive; the young woman at its centre is a conventionally winsome colleen. And then you look at the date, 1847, and you look at the rosy-cheeked children whose eyes are on the piper. And you can’t help wondering: did they survive? Did they make it alive to Boston or New York or Liverpool?

Or you look at Charles Henry Cook’s rather wooden Saint Patrick’s Day/Irish Matchmaker (1876). It is too stiff and lifeless to be worth dwelling on except that the figure dancing at its centre in the background is a preening, moustachioed redcoat, a soldier posing for a young woman. She has her hands on her hips in an ambiguous gesture that may be simply part of the dance or may indicate the defiance that seems to be present in her stern gaze, which refuses to meet that of the soldier. And then you notice that three other characters have their eyes fixed on this background scene, one of them with his hand over his mouth in apparent shock. Something is going on: some drama (sexual, political or both) is being played out behind the foreground scene of men making a bargain.

A degree of friction seems inescapable. A strength of the Boston show is the inclusion of several Irish paintings by the American artist Howard Helmick. His Rival Suitors would, in any other context, be no more than a typical genre scene with a cute narrative: a young woman drawn between two young men. But one of the young men here is in redcoat uniform, the other an idealised Yeatsian peasant. What would otherwise be a chocolate-box image thus has an air of conflict (one man has a bullwhip, the other a sword), menace and political allegory.

It actually helps that such paintings are not in themselves marvellous works of art, for it frees us to look at them in a different way.

One of the important things that happened in 20th-century culture is that we were taught to see the value of paintings as entirely self-contained. If you wanted to know what a person or a place looked like, you had to study a photograph or go to a movie. Painting wasn’t there to give you any information except, perhaps, about the emotions and imagination of the artist. There was no point in looking at a Picasso portrait of Dora Maar to find out what Dora Maar actually looked like. Guernica didn’t tell you anything about the actual conduct of the Spanish Civil War.

This idea was a great success, but it had one significant drawback. If the only point of a painting was to be a great painting, what value could be given to paintings that were not so great? The general answer was “not much”. They were dismissed as efforts at “genre” studies or as kitsch. In fact the latter was a kinder fate than the former: kitsch became interesting again in the postmodern era.

Yet paintings can have a value that goes beyond their intrinsic artistic merits. They can be the only representations we have of significant aspects of daily life. We don’t have to naively imagine that what they show is simply “reality”, unmediated by assumptions and prejudices. If nothing else, they can be evidence of how certain kinds of people were seen. Those perceptions are also part of a social reality.

Renewed interest in these Irish “genre” paintings owes much to the groundbreaking 2006 exhibition Whipping the Herring, at the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork. In the same year, Claudia Kinmonth’s book Irish Rural Interiors in Art appeared. Shortly afterwards, the National Gallery gave us A Time and a Place: Two Centuries of Irish Social Life. The Boston show is self-consciously a part of this trend. It is not too strong to say that it comes out of a conscious decision to be interested in work that previously counted for very little. There had to be a new angle of vision from which to view this kind of work, and it was found less in pure aesthetics than in social history and cultural anthropology.

THIS DOESN’T MEANwe end up simply scrutinising pictures as if they were dry historical documents. The images may be quite outlandish. There is, in the Boston exhibition, a startling picture by the Scottish artist David Wilkie, on loan from the Scottish National Gallery, called The Irish Whiskey Still (1840).

The skill of the execution contrives to make the tableau all the more bizarre. The distiller, holding up a sample of his work to the light, is like a medieval alchemist. A naked boy, half angel and half devil, is stoking the fire, from which emanates, in an apocalyptic cloud, a weird green-grey smoke. Watching from the side are an oddly prosperous-looking and handsome young woman and a bearded young man in a strange get-up that displays his grandly muscled legs and shoulders but makes him look like a refugee from an entirely different genre painting, of a scene from the Bible or the Odyssey. Yet all of this, too, actually tells us something important: that there is no “natural” way to depict social reality, that what looks to us like the flat realism of much 19th-century painting is as much an invention as cubism or surrealism.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Boston show is that it pushes this knowledge a little farther. It quietly questions the simple idea that there are two sides to these kinds of pictures: the peasants to be depicted and the painter making images of them. On the one side, in this conventional notion, there is the social; and on the other, the aesthetic.

But things are surely more complicated and interesting than that.

In however highly qualified a way, the images can be seen as collaborations. As Angela Bourke points out in a typically incisive essay in the catalogue: “In order to sketch or paint an Irish rural interior – a private space – the artist had first to gain the permission and cooperation of the residents. Prosperous families may have felt honoured by such attention, but poorer people can only have been persuaded to admit the stranger and to pose for him or her by the possibility of financial reward. The finished image of an impoverished rural interior is a record of an economic opportunity, therefore, and probably of an economic transaction, formal or informal, in which both sides had parts to play.”

But if the painter had to engage with the economic lives of his subjects, those subjects themselves were not merely outside the realms of art. The big innovation of the Boston show is that it puts beside the paintings actual objects from Irish rural houses of the period, from a complete dresser with all its earthenware crockery to a vivid red settle bed, and from a súgán chair to the once-ubiquitous image of the Sacred Heart.

The point of doing this is not to indulge in a fetishistic nostalgia but to show that the inhabitants of these interiors were not, on an aesthetic level, mere objects of someone else’s gaze. They had their own aesthetic taste and their own pride in a well-made object. The súgán chair, for example, is a thing of beauty in itself, its sides elegantly curved, its back decorated with panels that pick up on, and contrast with, the patterns of the straw seat.

Even those too poor to have an object as fine as a dresser had a sense of aesthetic display. If you go into a corrugated shack in any of the vast African or Latin American shanty towns of the 21st century, you will see that above the mud floors people have pinned pictures – religious images, footballers, butterflies, kittens or flowers – on the walls. Likewise, in a fascinating image included in the catalogue though not available for the exhibition, Frances Livesay’s By the Fireside, County Mayo (1875), we can see in a very poor household that the few pieces of crockery the family owns are stood on their edges on a rough shelf for display.

Even the most indigent people want to be more than objects of the outsider’s gaze. They want to choose the parts of their own interior lives that should be made public.