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Ireland United in Art

Ireland’s turbulent history over the last 125 years forms the background to an intriguing display of paintings and sculpture at Mall Galleries’ The Art of a Nation.

Review by Corinna Lotz

Gerard Dillon Still Life c. 1950

The first time that Irish art has been shown on such a scale in London for over thirty years is a unique chance to appreciate the contribution of Irish artists to 20th and 21st century art.

And amazingly, this offering can be seen free, just a couple of minutes away from Trafalgar Square. It has come to Britain courtesy of the Irish taxpayer who actually owns Allied Irish Banks which houses the collection from which these more than 70 works have been drawn.

The AIB, one of Ireland’s “big four” banks, had to be rescued from insolvency by the state after the financial crash of 2008 with a Euro 7 billion package. During the crash which saw a huge wave of anger against the banks, there were plans to sell off AIB’s huge art collection, but these ran aground due to unfavourable market conditions and “someone who had the nous not to sell it”, according to curator Nicholas Usherwood.

The art market’s loss then is our gain now, as it would be impossible to see such an overview of 20th and 21st century Irish art through its major figures anywhere else, except in the National Gallery in Dublin.

Colin Middleton Market Day c. 1977

A wonderful sweep and range brings together familiar names, such as the great Jack Yeats (brother of the poet W.B.), with contemporary sculptors and installation makers Dorothy Cross and Kathy Prendergast.

Early 20th century works show artists like Roderic O’Conor and John Lavery under the influence of Impressionism and post-Impressionism – thanks in part to the influence of Hugh Lane who founded the first public modern art gallery in the world in Dublin. Lane and the Yeats brothers were part of the Gaelic Revival circles. Working with light after training in Paris, painters like Grace and Paul Henry returned to their homeland and established “a consistently poetic response to the environment”.

The display is a chance to ponder the complex question of what “Irishness” might be and how it has been changing. Peter Murray, director of the Crawford Art Gallery (which was given 40 works by AIB as part of the post-nationalisation settlement) asks if Irish art can be seen “as an identifiable, discrete and homogenous phenomenon”. He concludes “Probably not”, going on to note that some of the most potent images of “the troubles” were created by British artists Richard Hamilton and Conrad Atkinson. But, searching further he discovers there is a sense of history, an inherent gentleness and a joyous quality in many Irish artists.

Willie Doherty Border Road 1994

Usherwood draws on Seamus Heaney to describe the trajectory of Irish art from its 20th century beginnings to the present as a “widening stream”. He contrasts Ireland’s “often epic journey towards finding a clear cultural identity” with the recent history of modern art in England, where now much of contemporary art has become “a plaything of the international super-rich ... a commodity almost before it is an emotional necessity”.

Perhaps the most revealing insight is that there has been no distinction between art or artists from both sides of the border. Some half of the art in the show is from northern Ireland and yet it was collected in the Republic. In recent decades Ireland – particularly Dublin – has been blessed not only with great artists, but with talented gallerists and museum curators who have nurtured artists, north and south over the last quarter century. Around half of them are women whose confident sculptures and paintings make the 21st century part of the show spring to life.

18 May 2015

The Art of a Nation is at the Mall Galleries, London SW1 until 31 May. Admission free.

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