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Development of Art in Ireland II.

September 29, 2009

Our last instalment of this article covered Art in Ireland, starting with its emergence from our country darkened by the Famine. The last thing on most peoples’ minds was the aesthetic world. Gustave de Beaumont wrote of Ireland in the 1830s- ‘One single apartment contains the mother, father, children and sometimes a grandmother or father. There is no furniture in this wretched hovel; a single bed of hay or straw serves the entire family. Five or six half-naked children may be seen crouching near a miserable fire, the ashes of which cover a few potatoes, the sole nourishment of the entire family….’

Little surprise, then, considering the abject poverty of the population, less than 15% of which lived in towns, that the pictorial arts did not flourish. The artists coming back to Ireland from England constituted the majority of  Irish artists and as Ireland started to pull itself out of its quagmire, galleries started up in Dublin and Irish art was represented by a select few.  The last article ended in 1932, with Keats, Lavery, Hughes, O’Sullivan and Clarke (both Harry and Margaret).  We shall take up from there by turning first to the Royal Hibernian Academy, founded in 1825, with the first exhibtions being held in 1825. The  building itself was destroyed during the Easter Rising. New premises were built, which would serve as the ground for its curious role as ‘The Man’. Its policies on art selection were criticised during the 1940s- they rarely showed art produced after Corot (b. 1796) and current contemporary artists felt hard done by.

 Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875) Avignon Seen from Villenueve-les-Avignon (National Gallery London)

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875) Avignon Seen from Villenueve-les-Avignon (National Gallery London)

Artists such as Mainie Jellet and Louis le Brocquy, Jack Hanlon and Norah McGuinness (amongst others) rebelled after the Academy rejected le Brocquy’s work and Raoualt’s ‘Christ and the Soldier’, resulting in the founding of the Irish Exhibition of Living Art (IELA) in 1942.

Rouault Head of Christ.

Rouault 'Head of Christ'.

Their media savvy meant that they polarized Irish Arts, with one half favouring the traditional  Academic and Realist arts and the other side espousing contemporary art. This art group flourished, but were damped down by the Troubles and economic difficulties of the following decades.  Their influence over the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art (now known as NCAD) resulted in a drastic revamp of the curriculum during the 1970s.  Throughout the eighteenth century there were three schools: Figure Drawing, Landscape and Ornamental Drawing and Architectural Drawing. The School of Modelling was added in 1811. The new curriculum focused installation, video, performance and various forms of conceptual art. In the process, traditional forms of representational art were put to the side to make way for the new. The IELA knew the power of the media and utilized it to their advantage. Having said this though, many of the members of IELA were also members of the Friends of the National Collection (of the National Gallery of Ireland), so in some cases the divorce was not complete. The changeover at NCAD meant that the education funneled students towards the conceptual processes of art creation that characterized the IELA.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the world of Irish Art added to its organizations the Aosdana, National Self-Portrait Gallery and the art magazine CIRCA started publishing. During the Celtic Tiger boom, Irish art sold for more than ever before, with artists such as Francis Bacon,  Jack Butler Yeats, Louis le Brocquyand William Scott (members of IELA) and John Lavery, James Barry, Roderic O’Connor, Walter Frederick Osbourne, Frank O’Meara and William Orpen (traditional) selling for as much as $86.3 million (Sotheby’s New York, May 14, 2008).

Louis le Brocquy

Louis le Brocquy

Frank OMeara,  Reverie, 1882. Pyms Gallery, London.

Frank O'Meara, 'Reverie', 1882. Pyms Gallery, London.

Sothebys were already established in Dublin, along with indigenous auction houses like Adams, deVeres and Wytes. These auction houses drove prices upwards until the recent crash in the economy which has left artists struggling. A report published in June 2009 by the Taxation Committee states  ‘Many of Ireland’s visual artists live below the poverty line. We have outlined that 67% of visual artists earn less than €10,000 from their creative works. A further 24% earn between €10,000 and €25,000. They are therefore dependent on additional supports to make ends meet. Our report shows that 33% of artists earn less than €10,000 in total earnings. A further 34% earn between €10,000 and €25,000. These total earnings are comprised of income from creative work, and part time or casual labour earnings.’

The struggle in the economy is producing a curious effect on the art market though- looking through the Auction catalogues,  it would appear the paintings are selling for prices proportionate to talent, rather than conceptual merit. It’s tempting to think that with the exuberance of the 1970s revolution, they may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater and omitted the importance of draughtsmanship and development of skills that can deal with more than one style of art. The result is a revival of realist art in Ireland, which can be seen not only in Ireland but internationally. The recent issue of the International Artists magazine shows an upward trend in realist and representational art. My next instalment of this series will discuss these recent and exciting developments in Irish Art. Keep an eye on this space!

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