Contrasting Histories
June 2014

Two concurrent exhibitions at the Irish Museum of Modern Art provided a marked contrast of curatorial approach. The Patrick Scott Retrospective (touring in 2014 it was organized by IMMA in conjunction with VISUAL in Carlow who showed the artist’s late work) is inclusive and something of a celebration of the artist’s contribution and position in Irish art. The Sheela Gowda exhibition consisting of work across a twenty year period originated at the Van Abbemuseum, and was more engaged with issues in and around the selected works. The contrast is indicative of the many roles IMMA juggles. The retrospective wasted no opportunity to let its audience know the prominent role the artist played through more than two generations of Irish art and design. While there was an understandable desire to offer unconditional support to Scott who in the planning and lead-up to the show was at the end of his long life, the secondary message is that as the most pre-eminent art institution in the country IMMA is in prime position to consolidate under its umbrella the accolades the artist had received—to be crowned with this retrospective. In another guise IMMA gives exposure to younger generations which extends from recognized artists whose status is less assured through to emerging artists. If the Scott Retrospective is in part an exercise in public relations within the current economy, the cultivation of the latter is in part about developing the future of the institution.
The Gowda exhibition was opportunity to view a broad range of work by a mid-career international artist. While Gowda herself is more than capable of verbally addressing the concerns in her work, as evident in her discussion with Annie Fletcher of the Van Abbemuseum and Grant Watson as guest curator for the exhibition, what is of specific interest here is how IMMA adapted the theoretical framework for the show. In a contextual presentation, Grant Watson referenced his first, first-hand encounter with Indian art and culture in the early 1990s. He cited influential artists and intellectuals in the decades pre- and post- India’s Independence, in particular, Rabindranath Tagore and K G Subramanyan (a contemporary of Patrick Scott). Watson didn’t so much relate their thinking and practices to the principles and policies of Mahatma Ghandi in the movement towards Independence and nation-building after Independence as identify the artists’ attitudes on the conflicts, overlaps and mergers between local traditions, western tendencies, modernity, and modernism in Indian art. While Gowda is of a younger generation, as an art student she had immediate experience of the teachings of Subramanyan and, though Watson didn’t over-determine lineage by making a direct link, there is little doubt that he sees relationships with Gowda’s reflections on contemporary India. In his talk, also within the context of the Gowda exhibition, Colin Graham was on firm territory in his analysis of links between Ireland and India in the earlier part of the twentieth century when Irish nationalism was seen as a model. But, when it came to the post-colonial situation, Graham valiantly pursued his brief in trying to theorize connections between the two countries, though also to view Gowda’s work through the prism of the tensions between nation and community.
As might be expected, the Patrick Scott Retrospective is displayed along chronological lines. In practice this meant that the small galleries at IMMA were thematically arranged from the early paintings of the 1940s through to the gold paintings from the 1960s onwards. And so Scott’s themes were laid out: the early motifs of birds, trees, or ships in semi-abstract, ‘naïve’ style, the bog paintings, the solar device paintings, and the gold paintings. The works within the latter themes are central to his reputation as a fine artist. It is as a full-time fine artist from 1960 that Scott’s interest in Zen, the art of the Far East, and his own commitment to a meditative way of life could come to the fore. By tracing Scott’s evolution under thematic subject and its aesthetic this retrospective follows the same path as his retrospective at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane in 2002, and Aidan Dunne’s coffee-table book on Scott published in 2008. All this establishes his work in a career groove that culminates in the purity of the so-called gold paintings. Scott himself may be partly responsible for this view. In the documentary film made by Sé Merry Doyle around the time of the Hugh Lane Retrospective and available for viewing at the IMMA/VISUAL exhibition, the artist speaks of his work as a procession of themes. It seems a pity that the current exhibition repeats this way of looking when other aspects of Scott’s development remain obscure. To put this in context, Scott associated with significant sectors of Irish art and design in his early career and later he mingled in circles of friends and acquaintances who were powerful figures in Irish life and culture. Scott’s career involves more than simply the solo artist who valued the quiet meditative life.
In this respect it is necessary to highlight that the current retrospective includes Scott designs as well as his art. Also, the catalogue, (with essays ranging from Mel Gooding’s exposition on the paintings to Mary Ann Bolger’s scholarship on his designs), includes discussion of even more aspects of Scott’s output. Taking ‘design’ to mean Scott’s work for the Scott Tallon Walker architectural firm (1945-1960) and the Signa Design Consultancy (1953-1960) and to exclude his designs from 1960 which are an off-shoot of his fine art practice, the design component of the exhibition serves almost as an interlude between his early and later paintings. They are different not only because they need to be examined up close rather than from afar to take in the aura, but because their functional role means they operate in a different framework to painting. If this appears to confirm the segregation of the fine art work in Scott’s history, it is more accurate to see the early design practice as creating potential audience and patrons for the paintings which were later augmented by his tapestries and other designs. Scott Tallon Walker was the pre-eminent architectural firm of the post-war period introducing modernism in both public and private spheres and, in its capacity as designer of some of the most important buildings in modern Ireland, it was a powerful outfit. Michael Scott deserves particular mention in this regard.
It is on this point that Patrick Scott’s early career could do with further investigation. While his encounter with the White Stag group of painters when still an architectural student is well documented as a formative moment, it should strike us as remarkable that Scott was already pre-disposed towards modernism which would be unusual within fine art circles at this time. In this we should look to what was going on in the architectural course at UCD and in the Scott Tallon Walker practice. Scott’s talent is perhaps in recognizing that the future lay with modernist art and certainly his life-long association with the people in and connected with the architectural firm did no harm to his career. But how did Scott himself envisage that future? The artist is invariably cast as a very affable man who took great pleasure in dinner-table conversation. He didn’t pick arguments and the downside of that is an absence of records of his views on artistic matters. Even the so-called device paintings which started as protest against the testing of H-bombs conforms to what just about everyone in high cultural circles of the time thought and in any case is harmlessly distant from the politics of Irish culture. Yet as is well documented Patrick Scott in the early 1950s contributed to the making of one of Ireland’s most iconic modernist buildings, Busaras, which had an immensely symbolic role in nation-building as it was to be the hub of one major wing of the national public transport system. With such projects design aspires to transcend function. Yet we do not know what Scott thought about it beyond the practical design concerns.
In recent decades there has been a tendency to look back on the years from the 1950s to the early 1980s as a time when modernization was necessary in reforming a backward Irish Republic. It is often forgotten that the process was contested, often bitterly, as was the case within fine art in battles over modernism. It behoves us to know more about the adoption of modernism in Ireland and the sorts of discourses surrounding it. By contrast, we know that in pockets within India and within South America modernism was not adopted wholesale by artists and designers but was critically received. We need more by way of empirical research as well as theory on visual culture in Ireland during the period. Particular examples would include Scott’s intent on his so-called Irish Pub designs or his designs, paintings and prints on his ROSC motif.