Art and Independence
An aspect of Twentieth Century Irish Art

This is a shorter version of an article published in Circa No. 14 (Jan / Feb 1984). Circa 14 was a theme issue, ‘the “Irishness” of Irish art,’ that achieved a certain notoriety for its Editorial which criticized a perceived conservatism in the Irish art establishment. That said, the Issue was part of a shift towards the reading of art in its social or political context, versions of which have since been to the fore.

Circa 14 cover

Cover of Circa 14, January / February 1988

‘There is nothing yet, except in terms of the actual scenery itself. Paul Henry is Paul Henry. You recognise the scenery, not a particular style of painting. Somebody, somewhere, sometime has got to produce a type of painting so that one can say “That’s Irish painting”.’1

These remarks by the artist Patrick Collins indicate at least three concerns: painting (as opposed to sculpture, or other media); landscape as subject (as opposed to other subject matter); and, most importantly, the concept of an Irish school or style. These interrelated concerns have been particularly contentious in twentieth century Irish art, largely because of the desire to identify the uniqueness of Irish art as distinct from British and International influences. As I will try to develop in this article, the attempt to isolate features of specifically Irish art is compounded by much cruder, popular stereotypes of ‘Irishness’ as epitomized in the stage Irish image and the rural Ireland image. Fine art in Ireland it may be noted, and despite the changes in subject and medium in the past twenty years, is primarily associated by a broad section of the Irish public with easel painting and with landscape. Respectively, painting as one of the more direct and immediate of visual art forms, and landscape painting especially, are susceptible to mythologies about Irish character and Irish rural life.

I suspect therefore that the attempt to aspire to a specifically Irish condition for fine art is an attempt not only to improve the standing of Irish art but to transcend representations of Ireland that exist on a much broader level than fine art itself. I want to argue that the visual arts in Ireland have had difficulty in coming to terms with stereotypes of Irish landscape largely because of the historical weakness of fine art and the absence of a specifically Modernist discourse. I furthermore want to suggest that art historical or art critical reconstructions of twentieth century art have been unduly concerned to categorize developments into Anglo-Irish, Irish, and, International,2 thereby reinforcing the idea of necessary difference between Ireland and Britain, or increasingly Irish culture and Anglo-American culture. I want to propose that the coming of age of Irish art lies not in transcending emulation of non-Irish styles but for further inquiry into the meanings generated through twentieth century Irish art. What follows is a necessarily brief and selective introduction to these questions.

Rural Ireland and landscape painting

The representation of Ireland does not appear contentious until the Celtic Revival (cultural) of the late nineteenth century and the expansion of Irish Nationalism (political) of the early twentieth century. Between the seventeenth and mid-nineteenth centuries we find paintings of scenes either foregrounding or backgrounding the Irish landscape where neither artist nor spectator raises such issues. That we look for evidence of a more specifically Irish outlook towards the end of the nineteenth century is for a number of historical reasons. Firstly, we look to the influence of the Celtic Revival in literature and crafts and if this was slow to actually infiltrate fine art, in retrospect we expect to find the beginnings of change towards, and eventually a more explicit espousal of nationalism. Secondly, the influence of Impressionism led artists to a more consciously localized depiction of subject.


Circa 14 p6 Circa 14 p7

Pages 6 and 7 of Circa 14, 1984

Modern Irish painting has its origins in the influence of the innovative French painting of the latter half of the nineteenth century. Successive generations of Irish painters followed in the footsteps of the French artists as they moved out of Paris into the natural environs. From Barbizon in the mid-century to Brittany at the end of the century, French artists tried to escape what they regarded as the decadent sophistication of cultural circles. Rural, or more precisely, peasant existence was regarded for the first time by fine artists as not merely something to depict but as something to live. Between the mid-nineteenth century and the early twentieth century Irish artists from Nathaniel Hone to Walter Osborne and Roderic O’Conor, to the extent they could, followed the example of the French as did artists from all over Europe, picking up ‘en route’ the techniques of plein airism and of the Impressionists.

Before the end of the nineteenth century a number of Anglo-Irish and Irish artists had applied similar precepts to the Irish countryside though they remained basically town or city dwellers, or lived on the eastern seaboard. Until the second decade of the twentieth century the West, which could correspond to Brittany, was ostensibly a tourist trek but during the 1920s it became a significant theme in Nationalist aspirations. However, in this period modernism in Irish art suffered setbacks. The watershed between the more modernist, Impressionist technique and the emergence of paintings of the west incorporating a more academic style occurred during the second decade of the century—the decade of the 1916 Rising—and is marked by Patrick Tuohy’s Mayo Peasant Boy, 1914, and Sean Keating’s Men of the West, exhibited in 1915 in which the subjects are seen to be as much part of the land as nature itself. These paintings are not specifically political and are too conservative in style to be treated as revolutionary prototypes. (We term the events of 1916 as the ‘Rebellion’ as distinct from revolution.) The paintings may be ranked alongside pre-Second World War art which patronizes the peasant, such as in the ultranationalism that thrived in Germany and in Italy. By the 1920s Paul Henry’s Connemara landscapes were repetitive and easily identifiable as ‘Paul Henry’s.’3

As far as landscape painting is concerned the break in the development of modernism and a reversal to a more academic approach inadvertently established a precedent that Irish painters since have struggled to overcome: the pursuit of subject-matter associated with the rural west: bog, sea, mountain, thatched cottage, and indeed women in shawls and men in soft caps. These rapidly came to signify ‘Irishness’ in ways that, for later artists at least, were merely stereotyped or clichéd? In short, these components of the landscape of the West were mobilized through political and cultural developments as representations of Ireland and were placed in differentiation to the Anglo-Irish and British world. This is a powerful representation: people from across the world, and this includes Northern Irish and Southern Irish, recognize ‘Ireland’ when they receive the visual codes of bog, mountain, etc. The reasons for the break with even latent modernism that occurred in Ireland around the 1920s may be partly the nationalist commitment held by many of the artists concerned and the absence of alternative artistic direction once the outside links and influences were abandoned.

To the general public Paul Henry may be the quintessential Irish artist, his Belfast, Protestant background notwithstanding. The art world though prefers Jack B. Yeats or latterly, Patrick Collins. Paintings with the apparent raw depiction of the harsher Irish elements and the artist’s identification with the moods of the natural environment seem to place them firmly in a unique country and coincidentally in opposition to the more distanced relation of subject/object in British examples. By contrast there is no such connection between Northern Irish art, the land of Ulster, and Ulster Unionism. The visual codes of ‘Unionism’ are in popular culture rather than in fine art, a divide which William Conor managed to cross. Northern Irish artists have shown more direct sympathy for Irish causes than for Unionist or British. This is evident in, for example, Paul Henry and Charles Lamb. One artist who managed to evade the ideological issues was John Lavery. Lavery was knighted by the English, painted the Twelfth of July in view of the Northern Unionists, and yet completed the most Republican of themes for the new order in the Free State.

Another significant repercussion from the confusion between fine art motifs and stereotypes of Irishness is that art critics show inconsistency in their assessment of some modern Irish painters. Jack B. Yeats, for example, is evaluated as everything from, ‘His genius tends to isolate Yeats in Irish art,’4 to, ‘At heart he remained the Romantic illustrator, an afterbirth of the nineties, preserved by his own inner aloofness and solitariness and by the sheer provincialism of his milieu . . .’5 At one extreme it is Yeats’ “genius” which isolated him and on the other hand his “aloofness” and “sheer provincialism”. Yeats was fortunate in the post-Second World War years in that critical assessment favoured his daubs of paint to suggest landscape, or fantasy landscape, used after the 1920s and to the detriment of Paul Henry with his straight-forward, thatched cottage look. For a time it seemed that Yeats’ work was sufficiently non-literal and therefore modernist to be distinguished from the rest but in reality neither Yeats nor Henry is considered with sufficient weight in critical judgement to escape the turnabouts of fashion in art criticism.

Institutions and the Avant-Garde

While the charge of entrenchment and stylization can be extended to a good deal of European art of the 1920s and 1930s this was particularly retrogressive in Ireland where ‘Modernism’ beyond Impressionism was not generally accepted even amongst artists. The Free State meant a gradual decline in links between the new state and Britain. Some artists such as William Orpen left permanently, and for those who stayed it was as never since the seventeenth century a case of going it alone. As in the example of many nation States in modern history, isolationism both political and cultural meant an impoverishment in the arts. The single Modernist movement in the twentieth century prior to 1943 to make a marginal impact in Ireland was Cubism though, even here, it was a tame version which only a few artists adapted.6

The rather decorative interpretation of Cubism which developed for a time in Ireland was not concerned with landscape. Cubism was basically a Parisian phenomenon and it was in Paris that Irish artists discovered the style, if not the full implications for visual art. Cubism might be said to be a precursor of a more abstract approach in Irish art that occurred after the Second World War and which Irish critics characterized as the International style in distinction to Naturalism or explicit reference to environment, something which is too often thought of as the true Irish metier in visual art. If there is no tradition of uniquely Irish art then how could there be a category of art that Irish artists are proved to be adept in? A connection is made between the conception of Ireland as a rural country and of the Irishman with his roots in the land. Many artists, particularly after 1943, have baulked at both the over-simplification and the stereotype, and have tried to avoid these. Since mid-century Abstraction has co-existed with Landscape in Irish painting as prevalent forms. But modern abstract art is too often simplistically regarded as an importation, a factor explained in terms of urbanization and the increasing separation between Irish people and the land, as well as increased exposure to international trends. However, the question which follows is, what are the consequences of isolationism in visual art? When a comparison is made between the situation in Ireland and the development of Modernism in Europe, or particularly in France, the gaps in Ireland’s development become very stark.

In Ireland the Royal Hibernian Academy, established in Dublin in 1823, has continued to influence the development of art in the Irish Republic whereas to a large extent in France and in England the official Academy is ignored or is marginal in relation to the dominance of Modernism. By contrast, the presence of RHA has always been felt in, for example, the National College of Art and Design in Dublin. The first variation of a Salon des Refusés in Ireland did not take place until 1943 with the creation of the Irish Exhibition of Living Art. Many artists hoped that the IELA would inject some life into Irish art, and for a time it did, but it became so indistinguishable from the RHA that in 1973 it was reconstituted. Notably, the difference in orientation between art in Ireland and that in France besides the obvious absence of radicalism, was the level of compromise in what the progressive Irish artists purported to do, i.e. offer an alternative. Even those who were initially thought to be daring, such as Patrick Collins and Louis Le Brocquy, were to exhibit in both the IELA and RHA.

There are of course many reasons for suggesting that compromises were necessary. Throughout the period from the civil war until at least the 1960s when economic and cultural changes were rapid and dramatic, Ireland was an unlikely venue for an avant-garde. There was no intrinsic radicalism within Church, State, or cultural institutions which might encourage such a group, and the economy was particularly poor. There is every justification for the view that artists should have taken all avenues open to them because even these were extremely limited; those who possibly could spent sojourns abroad. But what this means in effect is that there was no integral network to disseminate ideas and practices, nothing that would assess modernist art on its own terms. Rather there were interventions from non-sympathetic quarters which helped dissipate the possibility of at least an appreciation of Modernist or avant-garde art.5

The above selective account of twentieth century Irish art juxtaposes tensions between reactionary, academic art and progressive, modernist art. Reality is less clear-cut, and even in France modernism is not a single, linear development but many complex forces. Yet salient characteristics are consistent which permit art historians to identify a general tendency, in this case Modernism. In Ireland it may be said that, generally, during the period of European Modernism, visual art was contained both within and without by conservative forces as represented by the Royal Hibernian Academy.

In the absence of Modernism: Postmodernism?

Rapid economic change occurred in the Irish Republic in the 1960s and in its wake came social and cultural change. Over the last twenty years for example, the population of the country has changed from predominantly rural to urban. The need for economic development helped break the political isolation of former decades which in turn has helped expose Ireland to mass cultural and minority cultural interests from abroad. If television is a purveyor of mass culture then developments in cheaper printing and colour reproduction have expanded communications in contemporary art. Irish artists have had more access to Late Modernism than the previous generation to Early Modernism. And yet, while visual art has expanded enormously, and while the new industrial order has shown willingness to sponsor modernist art, the visual arts have not developed an articulate level of discourse on its own principles and procedures: there are few books or catalogues which give even basic information about the past or present. In effect there are few opinion-making bodies within the visual arts.

This situation exacerbates the notion that ‘Irish culture’ is systematically being destroyed by ‘International culture’, or, on a more confined level, that Irish visual art is subverted by these outside influences. Yet there is a considerable and prestigious body of Irish art since the 1960s which reflects the International styles of Late Modernism from abstract and minimal work to performance and video. A substantial area of Irish art has therefore moved from a position of non-modernist or antimodernist to a position, perhaps, of greater alignment with international trends. But just as it might be asked whether a pre-industrial economy can successfully transform itself to an industrial economy overnight without going through the gradual phases of an industrial revolution, so it might be asked, can Irish art step into Late Modernism without the pre-requisite phases? The question of course is academic since the newest painting has simply taken a leap into Late Modernism, but landed in Postmodernism. The point is not whether Irish art should follow Western trends—because our culture will go in that direction as surely as our economy—but in establishing contemporary art.

Meanwhile Irish landscape painting has given a nod in the direction of Modernism and prevalent is a semi-abstract approach. In this the features denoting Ireland, the seascape (underlining that Ireland is an island), the bog and mountain, the cottages and farmers, are largely obscured in post-war landscape painting in what T P Flanagan has referred to as the ‘mist’.7 The picture post-card scene (remember that post-cards emulated paintings) is replaced by layers of transparent paint to suggest damp air, or dense paint to suggest the underlying bog. Whether this is done consciously (Patrick Collins) or unconsciously there is a strong identification with a concept of Irishness, indeed such identification is important: contrast these with Tim Goulding’s recent landscapes which approximate super-realism. While returning the cottage to its former place, Goulding’s paintings also distance the viewer because of their style. However, Patrick Collins, Tony O’Malley and Barrie Cooke are now in the dubious position of succeeding rather than preceding the myths of Irishness celebrated by Hollywood and popular media.

While these artists are of an older generation, a younger generation of artists and audience (though the critics have not yet responded) who do not accept this kind of direct mediation of artist as interpreter of nature. It is a view which emerged from Modernism and is essential to the Postmodernist credo. In illustrating the shift, and in conclusion, I will make some general remarks on Modernism and Postmodernism which I hope will identify the Postmodernist, and in the light of this what might be achieved.

The high water mark of Modernism in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the United States was the non-referential, non-hierarchical art of abstraction and minimalism. The subject was the medium itself or the physical conditions of installation; attention was exclusively in the nature of the art object or in the process of art. Thus in removing allusions to external phenomena the modernist attitude was that art developed independently through abstract forms and ideas. While this purism led to dissatisfaction with modernism in its restrictiveness, and dissatisfaction in its aloofness from the public, an offshoot is in performance art where, because there is no necessary connection between the artist and the phenomenal world, or between the artist and ‘truth to nature’, the artist is free to adopt various roles or poses without any obligation to a true role. Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol are antecedents. In Ireland artists, including Nigel Rolfe, maintain a more Naturalist approach where the artist has a one-to-one relationship with nature, belief in a direct relationship, which is distinguishable from this multi-faceted role-play where truth is not the object.

Before the charge is made that contemporary International art is largely amoral it should be said that one facet of Postmodernism is an awareness that our culture mediates truth, and cultural conventions such as painting styles are the means by which we understand natural phenomena. Thus in postmodernist painting as distinct from modernist, the artist is aware that the medium is not a means to transcendence, nor an end in itself, but merely another interpretation of cultural interpretation of nature. Postmodernist painting is not only a narrative, it is also a commentary on the artificiality of the medium which conveys the narrative. Therefore the difference I would suggest between postmodernist painters such as Schnabel or more particularly David Salle and most artists working in Ireland, is that the former are aware of the cultural conventions of their medium and when they use stereotyped images they are quite aware of how and why: they are stating that they are dealing with a stereotype as a stereotype.

This leads directly to another aspect of postmodernism. We have seen that in their work the Italian postmodernist painters especially Sandro Chia make references to past Italian artists. These are often to artists without an international reputation, to artists who are known locally. While some critics might claim that the abilities of the postmodernist Italians are little better than those obscure artists they have revived, there is some kind of re-evaluation of past art which includes both the modernist and non-modernist. Postmodernism could help us not so much to reverse the evaluation stakes, but to examine the very stereotypes and clichés which fine art helped to create. Preferably this should not be a return to provincialism or obsession with the past but a better informed view of the past and its integral mythologies as another step into the present.

  • Arnold, Bruce. A Concise History of Irish Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 1977.
  • Barrett, Cyril. Irish Art 1943-1973. Rose ’80 Exhibition Catalogue.
  • Catto, Mike. Arts in Ulster 2. Belfast: Arts Council of Northern lreland / Blackstaff Press, 1977.
  • Dunne, Aidan. “A Celtic Art?”; Aidan Dunne in conversation with Patrick Collins and Michael Cullen; The Crane Bag. Vol. 5, No. 2, pp. 88-92.
  • Fallon, Brian. “Irish Painting in the fifties”; The Arts in Ireland. Vol. 3, No. I, pp. 24-36.
  • “Seamus Heaney talking to T. P. Flanagan”; Irish Times. 21 Sept. 1967.
  1. Patrick Collins in conversation with Aidan Dunne and Michael Cullen. Collins (b. 1910) is still painting and had a major retrospective exhibition in 1982.
  2. See for example C. Barrett, Irish Art 1943-73. In A Sense of Ireland festival of contemporary Irish art held in London in 1980, the fine art group shows were divided into The Delighted Eye, predominantly landscape painting; The International Connection, largely abstract art; and Without the Walls oriented towards avant-garde, conceptualist and 3-D work.
  3. T. P. Flanagan has remarked, ‘… I can’t go to Connemara without seeing the Twelve Pins the way Paul Henry saw them. That’s why I never paint the Twelve Pins: Paul Henry has seen them and he’s given me a vision of them which helps me to enjoy them, and as a painter he has performed a necessary function,’ (Quoted in M. Catto, Arts in Ulster 2, p. 7). Flanagan has assumed the legacy of Irish landscape painting and he sees Henry as primary interpreter of Connemara rather than as a figure in what Brian Fallon has described as, ‘the Bord Fáilte (Irish Tourist Board) School of Painting.’ Nevertheless, it is worthwhile noting that if most artists emulate their peers, Flanagan avoids, or says he avoids, Henry’s subject-matter. The image is too pervasive. I would suggest this is because of connotations of the West that have accumulated since Henry’s original image.
  4. B. Arnold, A Concise History of Irish Art, p. 139.
  5. B. Fallon, Irish Painting in the fifties, p. 30. Neither Fallon nor Arnold (ibid.) is given to extravagant claims.
  6. The artists Mainie Jellet and Evie Hone are accredited with public relations work to help create a better understanding of Cubism. In 1943 they helped establish the Irish Exhibition of Living Art (IELA).
  7. The context is an interview with Seamus Heaney: ‘(Celtic) has come to mean an art form that refuses to accept the strident precisions of the present and rather chooses to continue to comment on a type of behaviour and existence which has no longer any relevance or resonance. And it’s always, of course, associated with mist,’ (The Irish Times, 21 Sept. 1967).