Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1976 – Northern Ireland, the 1,500th Victim, by Robert Ballagh

Creation of editioned print marked ongoing conflict in North, which Ballagh had reflected in 1972 installation of 13 drawings in blood and chalk, sparked by Bloody Sunday killings

‘Northern Ireland: The 1,500th Victim’ by Robert Ballagh. The artist’s forays into advertising led him to use photography and screen-printing as a basis for painting

‘Northern Ireland: The 1,500th Victim’ by Robert Ballagh. The artist’s forays into advertising led him to use photography and screen-printing as a basis for painting

 

Robert Ballagh sprang to prominence in 1967 with, among other things, a pop-art painting called Blade. Its subject was a razor blade elevated to a grand scale and painted in painstaking detail. There was nothing else in the picture, which was soon followed by equally realistic representations of such insignificant items as iced caramels.

Blade was shown at the Brown Thomas Gallery and bought by the Arts Council, a significant accolade for an artist who didn’t have the usual art-college connections, who had spent his time until then playing bass in a pop band, The Chessmen, and who insisted on painting subject matter that offended traditionalists because of its trivial content.

Within a couple of years, however, Ballagh and others had been radicalised in a different direction by the outbreak of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and his work took on a far more political and polemical slant.

The early work had shown Ballagh’s determination to make art for a mass audience that could, he hoped, communicate in a contemporary language, avoiding the exclusive, “insider” language adopted by art critics and connoisseurs at the time. To do this he employed techniques made familiar through advertising, itself revolutionised in midcentury Ireland by businessmen such as Gordon Lambert, who was to become an important patron for the young artist.

Ballagh’s forays into advertising led him to use photography and screen-printing as a basis for painting – irritating both aspiring modernists and traditional academics who valued refined and time-tested training. He completed a large series of paintings of people looking at artworks by leading figures in international modernism, then a source of bafflement to many people in Ireland. Highlighting the process of looking at art, the kind of people who look at it and how they do so was itself part of a new media-inspired trope within modernist discourse.

Leaving the politics of art production and consumption aside temporarily, Ballagh produced a series of pop versions of famous paintings about earlier historical conflicts, by such artists as Goya, Delacroix and David, in which he replaced their romantic, expressionist brushwork with the flat surfaces and uniform outlines of advertising.

The gallerygoing public did not immediately relate this work to what was happening in Northern Ireland, but the shooting dead of 13 unarmed civil-rights marchers on Bloody Sunday, in Derry in January 1972, drove the artist towards more explicit work, the meaning of which was all too clear.

During the Living Art exhibition at Project Arts Centre in 1972, Ballagh created an installation that took the form of 13 drawings in blood and chalk on the floor of the gallery, one for each person shot dead on Bloody Sunday, mimicking those made by police investigating a murder. Four years later Ballagh created an editioned print, Northern Ireland: The 1,500th Victim, using a similar drawing, to mark the continuance of the conflict.

Significantly, one of the purchasers was Ballagh’s early admirer Gordon Lambert, who later donated it to the Irish Museum of Modern Art. It was good that he did so, as, in a further comment on art consumption, the audience at Project in 1972 trampled all over the original drawings, carrying the dust and blood away on their shoes as they left.

You can read more about this week’s artwork in the Royal Irish Academy’s Art and Architecture of Ireland; ria.ie

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