A poet’s eye for the erotics of art

The essays Enrique Juncosa wrote during his nine years as director of IMMA reveal a glittering mind


There was a rumour that he was a poet, and that he had come to Ireland with many thousands of books. He was living in a house in the grounds of the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham. As he was Mallorcan and it was winter, he must notice the cold, I thought. Then I heard that he did not know before he came to Ireland that there could be cold like ours – the damp insinuating cold, with frost in the morning, a cold that lasts for months and gets into your bones and wearies your spirit. It would not have helped, I thought, that there were so many bare dripping trees around the Irish Museum of Modern Art. It was not a natural habitat for someone brought up on an island in the Mediterranean.

To be from the island is to know how both to absorb and to withstand the outside world. Mallorca is a very conservative society, with an upper middle class, or an owner class, that has retained its power and its holdings with considerable care, having built them up over a number of centuries. It is easy to imagine the consternation that Joan Miró must have caused on the island. Not only was his work uncompromising, his iconography almost private and childlike, when it was not dark and public, but he had made his left-wing credentials plain when he showed work in the same pavilion as Picasso showed Guernica. As the second World War broke out, he took a great risk in coming back from France into Catalonia. He was warned by a friend, however, not to dream of going to Barcelona. Instead, with his wife, Pilar Juncosa, and their daughter, he travelled to her native Mallorca. He remained there for the rest of his life, quietly working. Mallorca took him in and rescued him. Pilar Juncosa was the sister of Enrique Juncosa’s grandfather.

The first thing I noticed about Enrique Juncosa when I met him was his good humour. He smiled when I mentioned the cold, in the same way he would smile over the routine matters, large and small, sent to try him during his nine years as director. He found things odd or amusing or funny. He knew a great deal, but he wore his knowledge lightly, and it was fascinating to watch as his knowledge of Irish art, for example, began to increase.

He cared deeply about Imma’s collection, realising that even if the museum did not have enough space during his time to show all the work it wanted to show, it might well have more space in the future. During his period as director the permanent collection thus increased enormously, and it began to include some of the best work done by Irish artists since the 1940s, as well as work by international artists. This might seem part of the normal job of any director, but it was done in a time when museums and curators were questioning the very idea of a collection, and were openly discussing deacquisition as part of their function. In the strange world of the modern art museum, the idea of the institution as a custodian of work to be enjoyed by generations in the future was being dismissed as hierarchical, old-fashioned and a waste of time.

In Ireland, Enrique Juncosa immersed himself in the work not only of Irish artists of international repute but also of figures he began to admire, such as Charles Brady and Cecil King, both of whom had died in the previous decade or so, and whose work appeared in Dublin auction rooms, but whose reputations were uncertain. I remember once taking Enrique through a list of Irish artists, most of them unknown outside Ireland. With each artist, Enrique could pinpoint the works by that artist that were in the Imma collection, and he could remember who had donated a work, or what funds had been used to buy it.

What made Enrique Juncosa’s work as a museum director unique, I think, was his relationship with fiction and poetry. He spent two or three hours reading each morning before going to work. Thus he was completely at home with the new novels and poetry coming out in English and in Spanish. He also devoted a great deal of time to writing poetry. This meant that he understood something fundamental and serious about the concept of an artist at work and the idea of the imagination, an understanding not shared by many other museum directors or curators.

Although it is easy, if foolish, to see a work of art as a moment in art history, or part of a movement that lasted a decade, or the result of a theory, it is much more difficult to do this with a novel, or indeed a poem. The sense of the individual will, or the individual talent, or an actual living voice and aura, is deeply insistent in works of literature. The notion of the writer as powerful and autonomous is also felt deeply by the reader. Indeed, it is something that readers demand. This is one of the reasons why editors and publishers do not have the same power as curators and art critics.

In the essay entitled 2666: The Imma Model, Enrique Juncosa wrote: “While we have programmed a number of group shows, I am interested in the individual approach because it served to profile the outlook of the artist rather than the views of the curator. The museum should be a platform for artists, and I would position myself against the view that the figure of the artist in the contemporary world is obsolete.”

He also made clear his belief in the idea of a museum collection: “The collection remains one of the most important aspects of the museum itself, despite the contextual shifts that a collection may contain. It is important that a national institution like Imma has a collection of Irish art, not to encourage provincialism, but for there to be a record of artistic traces, for people to remember who and where they came from.” He also emphasised the importance of catalogues and artists’ books in this context of creating a record for the future.

Susan Sontag
The essays that Juncosa wrote during his time in Dublin, however, allow in a certain amount of theory. But the theory is an interesting one, and one that takes its bearings from a statement by Susan Sontag at the end of her essay Against Interpretation, written in 1964, where she insisted that “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art”. The problem, over the past 50 years, has been simply that it is much easier to offer interpretation than it is to register pleasure and thus allow for the possibility of intimacy and mystery to exist between the work and the viewer. Interpretation maintains control; it is a form of power. Trying to write in some other way about art and artists involves a giving in, or a paying homage, to the artists’ own methods and systems and – dare I say the word? – talent.

Juncosa is unusual as an art critic because he writes well; his own sensibility is on display in the sentences he makes. In his erotics of art he seems to take pleasure from uncertainty and mystery. He knows that the power of an artwork lies most in what cannot be easily said about it. But he evokes this with clarity and accuracy.

The questions Juncosa asks are sometimes formal questions, and sometimes questions to do with the influences on an artist, or the context in which an artist had worked. But more than anything Juncosa is prepared to allow the power of the inner life of the artist, even the spiritual life, to be what animates and gives energy to the art.

All the time, as he writes, it is clear that Juncosa has been taking pleasure from the work he sees. In his essay on the Thai film director Apichatpong Weerasethakul we are allowed to sense the urgency of this pleasure and his need to share the experience. In his first encounter with these films, he writes, “I also had the distinct impression that this director knew me intimately and was leading me slowly towards that vulnerable and erotic state one feels on the verge of passionate love.”

I love the idea that these sentences may have been written in an old house in the middle of a dark, damp Irish winter, with frost on the grass and the trees all bare outside. In the same way, when Juncosa writes about Dorothy Cross’s Shark Lady, it becomes clear that for certain artists, such as Cross, an erotics of art becomes the only sensible approach. “In the same way,” Juncosa writes, “that the sight of a shark fin in the sea makes unknown dangers spring to mind, surrendering to desire can take us with astonishing speed to unexpected places.”

The work Juncosa likes involves danger, mystery, an involvement with the world, knowledge and self-knowledge, risk, an openness to tradition as well as a pure individuality. He is alert to the dullness of much fashionable work that is made. In an essay on drawing he writes: “The kind of art that is fashionable today is one very much based on a prosaic language where thoughts, facts and theories are organised accurately and neutrally. In this context, the documentary, the record and the political theory predominate . . . Fortunately, drawings have so far escaped the overbearing, grey theorising employed by the more dogmatic of contemporary art critics.”

Juncosa himself, in the work he did in Dublin, and in the essays he wrote, displayed a glittering and self-questioning mind. He looked to theory when he needed to, but mostly he looked at the work. The looking gave him pleasure, and then he sought to think about that. And he wrote as though the very act of thinking, analysing and making sense also gave him pleasure. Often, he went to literary sources for inspiration.

In the end, his work can be defined by statements made by two of the arch-priests of the modern movement in literature, TS Eliot and Ezra Pound. Eliot insisted that, for the critic, the only method was “to be very intelligent”; and Pound wrote in Canto 81, one of the Pisan Cantos:

What thou lovest well remains,

the rest is dross

What thou lovest well shall not be reft

from thee

What thou lovest well is thy true


This is an edited extract from Colm Tóibín’s foreword to Enrique Juncosa: The Irish Years, edited by Vivienne Guinness and published by Lilliput Press