Revisiting a controversial collection


The Hugh Lane: 100 Years exhibition has gathered many of the works that were exhibited at the original Municipal Gallery Exhibition in 1908, writes Aidan Dunne

MORE THAN AN EXHIBITION, Hugh Lane: 100 Years at the Hugh Lane gallery is an experiment in time travel. The show, which occupies most of Charlemont House and the new wing, revisits the very first day of Dublin's Municipal Gallery of Modern Art. On January 20th, 1908 it opened in temporary premises at Clonmell House in Harcourt Street. Those attending could see a surprisingly substantial collection of about 300 paintings, sculptures and works on paper. They consisted for the most part of works donated by Hugh Lane or drawn from his collection, together with a large number of pieces donated by artists and other individuals. This inaugural exhibition was the culmination of a protracted struggle, and further difficulties and discouragements were in store before the gallery found a settled home in Charlemont House in 1933.

Most famously, of course, there is the saga of Hugh Lane's bequest. Disgusted by political opposition to plans to provide a purpose-built gallery, Lane withdrew some 39 paintings from Dublin and willed them to London's National Gallery instead. Although he later relented, the codicil he wrote was unwitnessed, so that when he was killed after the Lusitania was torpedoed off Cork in 1915, the validity of his amendment was open to question. Dublin's moral claim to the pictures was set against London's legal rights. After much wrangling, a co-operative deal eventually emerged involving the loan of the majority of the works to the Hugh Lane and the alternate exhibition, four at a time, in London and Dublin, of the eight French Impressionist paintings that are generally regarded as the cream of the crop.

The 39 disputed paintings are known as the Continental Pictures, and they are all gathered together in Dublin for the first time since the original Municipal Gallery exhibition. Hugh Lane: 100 Years also casts its net wider, including a substantial number of the other works that were on show in 1908, meaning that the show is effectively a snapshot in time, and provides an insight not just into a moment of art history but also the exact viewpoint of an informed observer at that historic moment. Admittedly Lane was an exceptional observer by any standards, a dealer of legendary acumen and, as a nephew of Lady Gregory and friend of William Butler Yeats, part of an extraordinarily progressive cultural community.

His commitment to Ireland was also exceptional, and it's interesting that the work in the exhibition underlines the extent to which Irish visual art was increasingly linked to the European and, particularly, the French Realist tradition. Hardly surprising, given the virtual conveyor belt that delivered Irish painters, including Walter Osborne, Frank O'Meara, Nathaniel Hone and Roderic O'Conor (who, exceptionally, didn't return home) to the ateliers and artist colonies. With the exception of O'Conor, though, the Irish painters were relatively conservative in their absorption of European influences, when compared to the boldness of, say, Manet or Degas.

The collection of the National Gallery in London is incredibly rich, so that, in comparative terms, the Lane bequest paintings are much more significant in the Dublin than the London context. The two Manets, for example, are both major pictures and one is a portrait of Eva Gonzalès, a student of Manet's who appears as a model in many Impressionist paintings, and an important artist in her own right, whose life was tragically cut short when she died in childbirth. If you think the pose looks a little contrived, you'd be right. Although she is depicted at work, her attire and aspect are unsuitable and she is actually posed with one of Manet's paintings.

One of the striking features about the other Manet, Music in the Tuileries Gardens, and the wonderful Beach Scene by Degas, is their discontinuity of surface. Rather than striving to generate a seamless pictorial illusion typical of academic painting of the time, both Manet and Degas are cavalier in their treatment of the pictorial fabric, so that we are always aware that we are looking at paintings, at something made, rather than something pretending to a kind of mimetic perfection. This opening up of the surface generates a sense of possibility, even excitement, but it was, and perhaps still is, also very challenging and uncomfortable for viewers used to a more passive experience of looking.

There is a great deal to enjoy and think about in the exhibition. While works by Camille Corot are usually to be found on view in the gallery, his Avignon from the West, hanging in the new wing, stands out as a superb painting, panoramic in format. Equally, works by Courbet, Berthe Morisot, Pissarro, Vuillard and a remarkable, anonymous 19th century French picture, A Black Woman, all provide excellent reasons for a visit.

One of the good things about Hugh Lane: 100 Years is the impetus it provided for the gallery to address its own collection. The available catalogues document selected highlights and, as with virtually every institution, only a small proportion of the total is ever seen in the gallery spaces, so that a serious exploration and assessment of what's in the vaults was a really good idea. It entailed a huge and worthwhile exercise in cleaning and conservation.

Much has inevitably dated. The Italian painter Antonio Mancini, much associated with the Hugh Lane, is a problematic case. John Singer Sargent dubbed him the finest artist of his time, and he was much in demand as a portrait painter, though also mentally unstable and erratic. Lane thought highly of him and brought him to Dublin. Mancini used a thread grid as a means of fixing a composition, and the lines are clearly evident in many of his paintings. Lady Gregory found the experience of sitting for him unnerving, not least because he would draw back, then charge straight towards her with a heavily laden paintbrush, diverting to the canvas just before impact.

A BIT LIKE A painterly Puccini, he had an overheated sense of drama, building up masses of heavy impasto in lush decorative backgrounds. Although he was the subject of a substantial exhibition in the United States fairly recently, it doesn't seem that a major reassessment of his faded reputation is on the cards, perhaps because a great deal of his work teeters at the edge, and sometimes slips over the brink, into a froth of kitsch sentimentality.

Celebrated in his lifetime, Augustus John has also slid steadily down the rankings, even as his once overlooked sister Gwen has risen.

His monumental composition Decorative Group, which features two of his wives and four of his children, has something of the awkwardness and contrivance of William Orpen trying to be meaningfully symbolic. An odd, uneasy painting, it makes an interesting comparison with Puvis de Chavannes's equally monumental Beheading of St John the Baptist. It, too, is odd in its own way, Chavannes's penchant for chalky colours, muted tonality and calm, flat, decorative surfaces draining a little too much energy from what is, after all, an unmistakably fraught event. Yet it has a cohesive presence lacking in John's work. Another de Chavannes that form part of the bequest, A Maid Combing a Woman's Hair is a small, beautiful, serene painting.

An image of Rodin's nude male figure The Age of Bronze adorned the cover of the original catalogue and has become synonymous with the Municipal. It's an appropriate symbol, given that the statue was intended to express the anguish of defeat, and for much of the time Lane must have felt that he was banging his head against a brick wall in his efforts. Eventually, though, those efforts did pay off. We are all immensely indebted to Lane and his peers, for the establishment of the Municipal Gallery, for the ambition and generosity they applied to the business of building a collection, and for persevering in the face of opposition and indifference in many quarters. From early on the gallery has occupied a special place in the lives of Dubliners, and has greatly influenced many who went on to become artists and writers.

One hundred years later, it is a vital and evolving part of Ireland's cultural fabric.

Hugh Lane: 100 Years is at the Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane, Parnell Square North until Sept 28