Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1917 – Men of the West, by Seán Keating

Seán Keating’s Rising-themed painting places the men of 1916 in a heroic pose

Photograph courtesy of Dublin City Gallery the Hugh Lane

Photograph courtesy of Dublin City Gallery the Hugh Lane

 

In contrast to James Joyce’s embrace of modernism and escape from Ireland, the Limerick-born artist Seán Keating despised modernist art and returned in 1916 to make his career in Ireland after working in London with the renowned Irish portrait painter William Orpen.

Keating exemplified the veneration in so much of Irish nationalist culture for the western seaboard as the location of true Gaelic values. He dealt in the heroic, while Joyce’s medium was mock heroic.

Keating’s left-wing nationalism gave his work an affinity with the allegorical depiction of proletarian heroes in the “socialist realist” style that came to the fore in Russia long after the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917 – the year Men of the West was exhibited.

Yet, in his own way, Keating shared with Joyce a faith that art could help to create a new national consciousness. He was as close as the Irish national movement would come to an official artist; he later became professor of painting at the National College of Art and Design and president of the Royal Hibernian Academy.

Although it was shown for the first time at the RHA in 1917, Men of the West was begun two years earlier, before the Rising. The inclusion of the Tricolour, on the extreme left, suggests that Keating continued to work on the painting after the Rising, when the flag was used for the first time to symbolise the Irish republic. He was shaping the painting as a pro-revolutionary image.

The painting’s inclusion in the exhibition was also a deliberate political statement, doubly significant as the RHA premises on Abbey Street, where the annual exhibitions were held, was itself destroyed during the fighting in 1916.

Men of the West, displayed in the RHA’s temporary home in 1917, celebrates an act of political defiance. WB Yeats, in his later poem The Municipal Gallery Revisited, interpreted the scene as the preparation for an ambush, which is perhaps to see it through the prism of later IRA tactics.

In fact, the men seem not so much to be preparing for anything as defiantly displaying themselves; the figure on the left holds the viewer’s gaze with his own steely stare.

Here, as in Joyce, the personal is political, as the three figures in the painting are Keating himself, on the left looking towards the viewer, and his brother Joe, a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, who modelled for the other two figures.

Keating’s figure of himself is dressed in what was clearly recognisable as a costume from the Aran Islands, underlining the identification of the extreme west with a rugged and uncompromised authenticity.

The largely urban, lower middle- and working-class rebels of Easter 1916 are transposed into frontier figures oddly reminiscent of cowboys in the American west.

Even while creating an iconic image of how the new nationalistic Ireland saw itself, Keating revealed the uncertainty beneath that image.

information see the Royal Irish Academy’s Art and Architecture of Ireland at ria.ie. This five-volume, 1,600-year history of Irish art and architecture is launched in Dublin on Sunday and in Belfast on Monday

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