Visual Arts

The Emergency

A Turning Point for Irish Art?

Maurice McGonigal:
Bean agus a Naoidheanán
1942, oil on canvas, 101.8 x 76.5 cm;
courtesy Crawford Municipal Art Gallery Collection

The Emergency was a period when censorship ensured that little real sense of the atrocities of the war was presented in the Irish media. It was a time of self-congratulation when the Irish appeared to be able to overcome all obstacles. The reality was that Ireland was leading a charmed existence at one level while mass emigration helped maintain the status quo. To some commentators the 1940s represented the beginning of the end of rural Ireland as more and more people left the countryside, a feature of Irish life which continued throughout the 1950s. Joseph Lee has argued that De Valera's "comely maidens" cut no ice with the electorate in 1943 and in the post-war period Fianna Fáil fell from power.1 The foundation and success of a new rural-based party, Clann na Talmhan, and the success of the Labour Party until its split after the 1943 election, is indicative of the increasing agricultural and urban unrest during the war years.2

The Emergency "rather than representing a stretch of time when Ireland behaved like an historical drop-out, was in fact a period when the country's own internal historical life was entering a crucial phase."3 Terence Brown, among others, believes this crucial phase would have happened irrespective of World War II. But in the visual arts, at least, developments were certainly accelerated by the events of the Emergency. The final sparring matches in the debate between the academics and the modernists took place during the war years. Seán Keating's series of ambitious social-realist paintings, in which he depicted the complex ideologies of the new State, gave way to official portraiture and works which were preoccupied with an idealised rural Ireland. At the end of the 1930s, Maurice McGonigal produced a number of important works depicting the West of Ireland--including Cois na Farraige (1938) and Bean agus a Naoidheanán (1942)--which are remarkably in sympathy with De Valera's vision of modern Ireland in which self-sufficiency and the role of women as wives and mothers is paramount. Like Keating's later works, these embrace an idealised image rather than the reality of Ireland and are at odds with such earlier works as The Dockers (1933-34) which emphasised economic hardship, and referred directly to the difficulties of post-independence Ireland. At the same time the comparatively extreme abstract style of Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone gave way to a more compromised approach. Hone abandoned abstraction altogether and Jellett's late work is increasingly figurative and often refers directly to Ireland and Christianity, most notably in one of her last paintings, The Madonna of Eire (1943). In the early 1940s, the RHA rejected the work of a number of avant-garde artists in a last attempt to maintain their dominant position in Irish art. However by the time of the post-war years the RHA became a more open organisation in which a wide range of academic and non-academic work was exhibited.4 Intransigence towards modernism remained, however, within the National College of Art.

Those associated with the visual arts, particularly in Dublin, do not seem to have been adversely affected by the Emergency apart from some comparatively minor inconveniences and an apalling feeling of claustrophobia. Most commentators agree that the war, far from impeding the arts provided artists with new opportunities. It forced Irish collectors to look to their own and resulted in the establishment of Victor Waddington's Gallery in Dublin in 1942, followed by the Dawson Gallery in 1944. Many Irish artists were forced to return to Ireland including Norah McGuinness and Louis le Brocquy both of whom were involved in the setting up of the Irish Exhibition of Living Art in 1943. During the war The Bell and Commentary included important articles on the visual arts. The English journal Horizon also contained articles on Irish visual art. In 1942, London's National Gallery hosted an exhibition of work by Jack Yeats, and the resulting critical acclaim succeeded in attracting enormous public interest in a modern Irish artist--the first time that this had happened since Independence.5

The arrival of Kenneth Hall and Basil Rakozci from London and their establishment of the White Stag Group in Dublin in 1939 is often mentioned as a key development of the period. A coterie of foreign and native artists gathered around them and participated in their exhibitions and discussions. More than their work, their ambition and attitude to art seem to have made impressions on a number of artists who were to become central to Irish art in the post-war period--particularly Patrick Scott, Nano Reid and Gerard Dillon. They also provided a much-needed focus for the isolated cosmopolitan desperate to escape the inertia of war-bound Dublin. Their energy and broadminded attitude to the visual arts must have given some Irish artists a sense of continuing the project of modernism which the war had disrupted elsewhere. The distinctly international flavour of their exhibitions was a novelty, not seen before in Dublin.

Their most ambitious show was the Exhibition of Subjective Art in January 1944. This was to have been opened by Herbert Read who was prevented from travelling to Dublin at the last minute. Instead his essay On Subjective Art was published in The Bell in February 1944. Read was probably attracted to the White Stag Group because of its founding members' interest in psychoanalysis which they claimed was central to their work. Two years later Three Painters, a book on the work of Hall, Rakozci and Patrick Scott, was published in conjunction with their 1945 London exhibition.6 Written by fellow member, the psychologist, Herbrand Ingouville-Williams, with a preface by Herbert Read, the book advocated a philosophy which seems, in hindsight, to have been dominant in Irish art of the 1940s and 1950s. The aesthetic and formal qualities of the object are paramount according to Read--"To deny the aesthetic basis of art is merely masochistic, it is to deprive oneself of the pleasure belonging to an activity."7 The basis of the work of the White Stag Group lay in personal exploration and aesthetic experimentation--as Ingouville-Williams put it, "Today the artist is freed from any obligation other than to create an aesthetically satisfying whole within the centres of the frame."8 And a young Patrick Scott declared,"I have no aim in my painting, other than my own happiness."9

After the war the key members of the White Stag Group left Ireland and the group dispersed but their ideas continued to be explored by the Irish Exhibition of Living Art (IELA). The open nature of their shows which included both academic as well as 'avant-garde' work resulted in eclectic and diverse exhibitions. Their aim "to make available to a large public a comprehensive survey of significant work, irrespective of school or manner, by contemporary artists"-- provided an alternative forum for artists who did not subscribe to the "blinkered" vision of the RHA.

Margot Moffet, writing at the end of the war, summed up the achievement of the IELA and its founders --" We have raged and fought against the mental paralysis which threatens the new Ireland."11 This mental paralysis was seen most overtly in the attitude of the RHA and in the infamous rejection by Dublin's Municipal Gallery of Rouault's Christ and the Soldier in 1942. Through the manoeuvring of Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone this situation resulted in a reasonably positive outcome for the defenders of modernist art-- a great deal of discussion was generated and in the end the Catholic Church offered to house Rouault's painting in the seminary at Maynooth.

While the IELA showed a broad desire to keep the practice and exhibition of art open to new ideas and influences, there was no tolerance of modernism within the College of Art and the attitude to art within the school system was described by Thomas Bodkin as "amounting almost to contempt."12 It is not surprising then that during and after the war so many Irish artists received no formal or critical training whatsoever. The visual arts suffered more than theatre or literature in the lack of any informed criticism or obvious tradition.This need for some sort of context may explain why a number of post-war Irish artists looked to literature and literary criticism for their philosophical guide.13 As late as 1951 Nano Reid complained of the "academic art critic who attempts to evaluate contemporary art in terms of outmoded standards... The painter in Ireland is an outsider."14 Reid had moved from an academic approach to her own brand of expressionism and changed her style quite dramatically in the war years partly through her contact with the White Stag Group. Her work developed through experimentation and through her close friendships with other artists such as Gerard Dillon with whom she worked in the 1940s.

Despite the bleakness of the post-war situation there was a growing interest in the visual arts and the beginning of a new kind of audience. In 1950, two diverse commentators, Cecil ffrench Salkeld and Seán Keating, contributed two articles to The Bell on the state of art in contemporary Ireland. In a rather swingeing piece on Painting in Ireland Today, Keating wrote

    the emergence of a new class of leisured people, not rich enough to be idle, not poor enough to work, [has] opened up a new period of activity hinging on Art. The younger generation of this class is now passing from part-time to full-time dilettantism and...its members will provide the personnel of the new Arts Council and Cultural Bodies...In Art, as in other things, movements are inspired by saints and missionaries, and stifled by theologians and functionaries."15

At one level this is an attack on or at least a resigned acceptance of the IELA, the committee of which had a distinct upper middle-class flavour exemplified in its formidable president Norah McGuinness. She, and her fellow IELA exhibitor, Nano Reid, had been selected to represent Ireland at the Venice Biennale that year, the first time that the country had participated in this show.

The painter and engraver Cecil ffrench Salkeld, who was also a distinguished member of Dublin's literary circle and a genuine outsider when it came to art-world cliques, had studied and worked in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. While critical of much Irish art which he saw as derivative of continental movements and driven by commercial taste, Salkeld acknowledged

    there is some excitement, some life in the restlessness of Irish painting; a response, as it were to the faint but palpable stir in the interest of the public...preferable to the apathy of previous decades.16

This faint stirring of interest in the visual arts is reflected in the important state initiatives in the arts in the immediate post-war period. In 1948 Seán MacBride, Minister for External Affairs in the Clann na Poblachta administration, nominated the first Cultural Relations Committee, a group which was responsible for a number of important travelling exhibitions of Irish art in the 1950s. In the same period the government pursued the idea of a body dealing solely with cultural affairs. Thomas Bodkin produced his Report on the Arts in Ireland in 1949, and in 1951 a Fianna Fáil administration created the Arts Council.

The fact that these bodies were created at this point is evidence of a growing awareness of the value of culture to the Irish state. Having established itself on the international stage in the 1930s with De Valera's prominent role in the League of Nations, and less popularly with the decision to remain neutral in the war, Ireland made the final break with Britain and the Commonwealth in 1949. While traditional music, Gaelic sports and the well-established pedigree of Irish literature were the obvious means to demonstrate Ireland's unique heritage, the visual arts could demonstrate an internationally-recognised formal language of personal exploration linked to a distinct Irish setting. This was developed through the predominant subject of the Irish landscape (see Sue McNab article also in this supplement, pages 19-20).

During the Emergency there were major changes in Irish art practice. Artists broadly concerned with modernism and personal expression, rather than political realism, became dominant in Irish art. This was largely expressed in the philosophy of the White Stag Group. An important annual exhibition forum, the IELA was also established. The new cultural forces in post-war Ireland such as the Cultural Relations Committee, and later the Arts Council and influential sections of the Catholic Church, gradually became supportive of their work and aims. Within the slowly emerging modern state the subjective approach of many Irish artists, whose work rarely referred directly to contemporary realities, became acceptable, and was indeed preferable to the didactic work of earlier decades. Those outside influences which penetrated Ireland due to the circumstances of the Emergency--in particular the White Stag Group--confirmed the growing self-awareness of Irish art. The far-reaching effects of this period have yet to be fully assessed.

1See J.J. Lee, Ireland 1912-1985: Politics and Society, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. 239-241. Lee points out that after the relatively poor showing of Fianna Fáil in the 1943 election, "'Comely Maiden' was unceremoniously dumped out of the saddle, and 'rural electrification' plonked in her place" (p. 241).
Ibid, pp. 239-40.
Terence Brown, Ireland: A Social & Cultural History
, Fontana, 1985, p. 180.
Louis le Brocquy's Image of Chaos and The Spanish Shawl, and an unidentified work by Nano Reid were rejected by the RHA in 1942 (see S.B. Kennedy, Irish Art and Modernism
, Institute of Irish Studies, 1991, p.118). This was a period of extreme attitudes on the part of the RHA--in the late 1920s and 1930s such comparatively modernist artists as Jack Yeats and Paul Henry were regular exhibiting and popular RHAs. Louis le Brocquy was subsequently made an RHA in 1946.
The presence of John Betjeman, press attaché to the British representative in Dublin, Sir John Maffey, during the war years, led directly to the exhibition of Yeats's work in London. Betjeman introduced Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery, London, to Yeats. See Bruce Arnold, Jack Yeats, Yale University Press, 1998, pp. 300-301. Victor Waddington was largely responsible for the subsequent major Dublin-based show of Yeats's work--the National Loan Exhibition in 1945--and the publication of Thomas McGreevy's Jack B. Yeats--An Introduction and an Appreciation
, Dublin: Victor Waddington Publications, 1945.
Cyril Connolly writing about the Three Painters exhibition in London saw the work as misrepresentative of what was happening in Ireland at that time--these artists were "scarcely looked upon as Irish artists." Cyril Connolly, Horizon: A review, Horizon
, XIII, April 1946, p. 272.
Herbrand Ingouville-Williams, Three Painters, Dublin: Three Candles, c. 1946, p. 3. (For details of The White Stag group and this period in Irish art see S.B. Kennedy, Irish Art and Modernism
, Institute of Irish Studies, 1991.)
Herbrand Ingouville-Williams, op. cit., p. 8.
Ibid, p. 12.
Cyril Connolly, op. cit., p. 284. The IELA also sought to broaden the context of their exhibitors' work by the inclusion of the work of non-Irish artists, a policy which was introduced at the second IELA in 1944.
Margot Moffet, Young Irish Painters, Horizon,
XI, April, 1945, p. 262.
Thomas Bodkin, Report on the Arts in Ireland, 1951, quoted in Brian P. Kennedy, Dreams and Responsibilities--The State and the Arts in Independent Ireland
, Dublin: Arts Council, 1990, p. 78.
Artists such as Colin Middleton and Patrick Collins among others appear to have been influenced by literature as much as visual art in the development of their work. See Julian Campbell Patrick Collins and 'The Sense of Place, Irish Arts Review, vol. 4, no. 3, 1987, pp. 48-52; John Hewitt, Colin Middleton
, Dublin and Belfast: Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaíon & Arts Council of Northern Ireland, 1976. Middleton was familiar with the writings of Clive Bell, Roger Fry and Herbert Read but his own poetry and interest in literature were important influences on his painting.
Quoted in Declan Mallon, Nano Reid Drogheda: Sunnyside, 1994, p. 75. The magazine Commentary ceased publication in 1946, and The Bell
in 1954.
Seán Keating, Painting in Ireland Today, The Bell
, XVI, December 1950, p. 18.
Cecil ffrench Salkeld, The Cultural Texture of a Country, The Bell, XVI, November 1950.

Róisín Kennedy teaches in the History of Art department at NCAD and at University College Dublin.

Article reproduced from From the Edge: Art and Design in C20th Ireland, a special accompanying CIRCA 92, Summer 2000, produced in collaboration with the National College of Art and Design, Dublin.


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