Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1981 – Belfast after Pollaiuolo, by Clifford Rainey

Antrim-born Rainey combined the violence of the Troubles with classical tones of Renaissance art – specifically, depictions of the martyrdom of St Sebastian

Representation of violence: ‘Belfast after Piero del Pollaiuolo’, by Clifford Rainey Representation of violence: ‘Belfast after Piero del Pollaiuolo’, by Clifford Rainey

Representation of violence: ‘Belfast after Piero del Pollaiuolo’, by Clifford Rainey Representation of violence: ‘Belfast after Piero del Pollaiuolo’, by Clifford Rainey

 

The title of this small sculpture (50cm in height) is rich with meaning, perhaps more so than other work of Clifford Rainey’s early period. Because he was born in Whitehead, Co Antrim, Rainey might have been expected to address the Troubles in his art. Whitehead appears to have been a peaceful place, but in 1975 two members of the UDA were found shot to death and buried in a nearby field in The Gobbins. Belfast after Piero del Pollaiuolo has all the hallmarks of a work that represents the violence of the time in the North – metal piercing the body, broken limbs, martyrdom and destruction.

By 1981, Rainey was already long immersed in the London art world. Reviewing a solo exhibition in Dublin’s Hendriks Gallery, Brian Fallon in The Irish Times (April 29th 1975) described Rainey as “Northern Irish by birth, but . . . thoroughly English – or rather, London – in style and training”.

If Rainey rarely explored the Troubles in any overt manner, elements of destruction had, nonetheless, a constant presence in his sculptures at the time. The regular terrorist incidents in London served as persistent reminders of the situation that prevailed in his homeland.

In addition to the obvious political resonance, the title Belfast after Piero del Pollaiuolo declares its association with Renaissance art. As a student in Belfast in the 1960s, Rainey experienced the wider world of art through art history. Any study of the Renaissance reveals a macabre interest in the story of St Sebastian, particularly his martyrdom. The 1475 version painted by the Italian Pollaiuolo brothers is perhaps the best known of these works; as it forms part of the collection of London’s National Gallery, Rainey was able to experience it at first-hand.

Classical antiquity

In addition to the fragmentary elements, the rusting in the work augments the association with the Troubles in viewers’ minds – already enabled by the naming of Belfast in the title and the explicit depiction of violence.

However, for the sculptor, the physical deterioration has more to do with the passage of time. The rust that increasingly permeates the work permits the sculpture to alter over time beyond the control of the artist, while the see-through element allows the rust to take on the appearance of veins running through the body. The broken marble base suggests an archaeological find, which is further corroborated in the geometric diagram that the sculptor has included to complete the form, therefore suggesting that it was once whole.

And yet this work is far from old or incomplete. Rainey, who in 1981 was at the cutting edge of the development of glass as a material for making sculpture, was pertinently avant garde in his metaphoric use of mixed materials.

Now based in California, Rainey was, in the early 1980s, considered a hugely accomplished craftsman, making technically superb glass sculptures, all of which is confirmed in the V&A purchase of this work in 1982 for its collection. While acknowledging the challenge of dealing with a work that deliberately incorporates elements of self-destruction, the museum has recognised that Belfast after Piero del Pollaiuolo has become “an icon of its time”.

Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks is a collaboration between The Irish Times and the Royal Irish Academy. Find out more at ria.ie

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