Imma comes back with a bang

The Irish Museum of Modern Art is reopening its main building, at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, with a weekend of family-friendly events – and a terrific Eileen Gray exhibition


When the Irish Museum of Modern Art closed its doors in November 2011 for essential work on its base, the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, the fact that the building was earmarked as a venue for events during Ireland’s EU presidency in the first half of this year seemed likely to ensure that it would reopen, as planned, last January.

Complications soon emerged, including the planning permission needed before an essential new art lift could be installed. July this year was proposed as a more likely reopening date, and programming proceeded on that basis, but by the end of 2012 it was clear that October was more realistic.

So it has proved to be – though work on the lift will continue until the year’s end. In the meantime, Imma’s off-site residency in the National Concert Hall building, on Earlsfort Terrace, was extended. There were even suggestions that Imma should retain Earlsfort Terrace as a city-centre venue, but the pattern of delays in reopening Kilmainham put paid to that.

The residency had its up and downs. It included Alice Maher’s extremely popular and successful survey exhibition. The group show that succeeded it, I knOw yoU, was extended through the summer, long past the point at which it had exhausted its potential audience.

Now, finally, Imma is reopening its main building at Kilmainham, with a family- friendly weekend of talks, tours and events, including Bolthole, Rhona Byrne’s interactive installation, starting at noon today and tomorrow, and culminating in a tea dance at 4pm tomorrow.

The newly renamed Garden Galleries, currently housing the excellent Leonora Carrington exhibition The Celtic Surrealist, have been open throughout the works, and the Carrington is something of a dream date with Eileen Gray: Artist Designer Painter, in the main building. “We suddenly noticed that the programme was strong on women,” says Sarah Glennie, Imma’s director. “It wasn’t a conscious thing.”

Prompted by those two shows, One Foot in the Real World, a concurrent exhibition drawn from the permanent collection by Marguerite O’Molloy, an assistant curator, foregrounds work that takes the psychology of architectural space as a starting point. It’s not just a question of taking work from the storeroom. Several installations are very ambitious, technically and physically. Antony Gormley’s Still Falling is a disconcertingly massive cast-iron sculpture. The raw blockwork enclosure framing Mark Manders’s installation sets a bleak tone. Juan Muñoz’s Dublin Rain Room is a model of the room it occupies, except with rain falling perpetually, as though in a film by Andrei Tarkovsky.

A past criticism of Imma is that it does not do enough for new Irish art. Perhaps mindful of this, In the Line of Beauty is a modestly scaled show featuring 11 younger Irish artists, including two recent graduates, juxtaposed with the engravings by William Hogarth, the 18th-century English artist, from which the phrase stems. Rachel Thomas, who has curated In the Line of Beauty, had in mind the way younger artists find novel concepts of beauty.

Sarah Glennie is keen to focus on emerging Irish artists. “In its early days Imma was exceptional in bringing in contemporary art from abroad. Now there are a number of institutions doing that. We have to make sure Irish art gains an international profile. I’ve no doubts about the quality of the artists. We’re opening our studio residency programme to curators from abroad, for example, so they can come and make studio visits. Acquisitions is a much more difficult issue. They can only improve with fundraising.”

She’s all too aware that Imma is operating in a difficult financial environment. “In terms of percentages, our funding cuts are in the high 40s from their maximum point. I think the national cultural institutions have sustained higher percentage cuts than Arts Council clients, say. Those seem to be in the high teens. Looking to the immediate future, I’d say our funding just about equals our running costs.” What this means is that funding may keep the doors open but may not provide anything for people to come and see.

“That’s just the way it is. We have to try to be smart and deal with it. The next couple of years will be difficult. We have to build income. Fortunately there is experience of that here in terms of running other events on the site. We’ve analysed our cost base and made savings, but there’s a limit to that. Our job is to make sure our resources are focused on delivering good projects.”

The Irish Architecture Foundation will curate a series of events from November. Early next year sees a Patrick Scott retrospective, in co-operation with the Visual Carlow art centre. One casualty, though, is a planned exhibition on the great Catalan artist Antoni Tàpies, who died last year. Funding and partnership issues have ruled that out.

Superb, eye-opening show that does justice to a celebrated Irishwoman’s talents
It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that a big exhibition of the work of Eileen Gray has been on the to-do list of pretty much every curator in Ireland for the past 30 or 40 years. The obstacles always proved too great, and in the end it was the Pompidou Centre, in Gray’s adopted home city of Paris, that managed to come up with a superb show that does justice to her talents. Now the Irish Museum of Modern Art has brought that exhibition to Ireland – and even if you’re already familiar with her work, ‘Eileen Gray: Architect Designer Painter’ is an eye-opener.

There was an assumption that Imma would get a scaled-down version of the original. The show’s curator, Chloé Pitiot, who is passionate about Gray’s work and has overseen every detail of the selection and installation in Kilmainham, says this is not the case.

The fragility of much of the material meant some pieces could not travel. But they have been substituted by other examples, including the prototype of a folding wall table, from the National Museum of Ireland, that has never been exhibited before, and, also from the museum, a remarkable celluloid screen that could not be accommodated in Paris.

As Pitiot explains it, Gray’s considerable reputation rests on only a fraction of her achievements and character. “The view of her in France would have been as a rather cold modernist. But there is a great deal more to her than that.”

Where Le Corbusier and his successors embody a chilly vision of modernity, Gray’s work is, Pitiot argues, always imbued with a more human sensibility, what she terms a sensitive modernity.

Gray’s core strength, she says, is her freedom of spirit. “She did not accept boundaries. As well as her architectural and design work, she always painted, always took photographs. She experimented with collage. She was a global, total artist.”

Gray was born in Co Wexford in 1878. The family moved between Brownswood, near Enniscorthy, and South Kensington, in London. In her early 20s, Gray enrolled at Slade School of Fine Art, part of University College London, to study painting, but she became fascinated by oriental lacquer work and set about learning its techniques. By 1907 she had settled in Paris, buying a flat that she kept for the rest of her life.

She persisted with lacquer work but also delved into carpet, furniture and interior design and, with no formal training, architecture. In 1922 she opened a stylish shop, Galerie Jean Désert, which attracted a formidable range of clients. “There are some clues, but we are not sure why she chose that name for her store, one of many enigmas that remain about her,” Pitiot says. Many of Gray’s original designs for rugs are on display, together with some completed examples. As with so much else in the exhibition, their daring, inventive freshness is exemplary and still invigorating.

The first piece in the show is a portrait of Gray by the artist and writer Wyndham Lewis. “They were friends for many years,” Pitiot says. “Lewis was associated with an avant-garde movement, vorticism, comparable to Italian futurism, and I am convinced that Gray was influenced by vorticism.” As evidence, she points to a characteristically dynamic spiral pattern that recurs throughout Gray’s work.

Many of the early pieces on view occupy a “transitional space” between art deco and full-fledged modernism. They include several stunning screens, one of which had been out of sight for decades until it suddenly appeared at auction last December. In her innovative use of materials and her sense of form, Gray anticipated a great deal of what makes up our contemporary design environment, “100 years before Ikea”, Pitiot notes wryly.

Gray eventually consented to mass production of her designs in the 1970s; until then she produced only prototypes. “You can look at two or more pieces that appear to be the same, but in fact they are variations on a design. There are always differences.”

Around 1921 she met a young Romanian architect and writer, Jean Badovici, who founded the influential magazine ‘L’Architecture Vivante’.

By all accounts she and Badovici were romantically involved, if not continually, until 1932, but Gray had a tangled personal life: she was bisexual, her relationships seem often to have ended badly and she destroyed her personal papers.

In any case, she and Badovici worked together to design and build a villa, E-1027, on a beautifully sited plot of land they bought on the southeastern coast of France.

The villa, a modernist masterpiece, long neglected and currently undergoing restoration, became an object of jealous obsession for Le Corbusier, who had initially encouraged her. His subsequent shabby treatment of Gray has been well documented. (Le Corbusier eventually died of a heart attack while swimming within sight of Gray’s villa.)

Gray remained vigorous and creative until 1976. She died in her apartment in Paris. This exhibition can only help to raise her profile and enhance her reputation.

Eileen Gray: Architect Designer Painter is at Imma until January 19th

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