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Report – ‘Writing Irish Art History’, Trinity College Dublin, Visual Artists’ News Sheet, Jan/Feb 2011

January 17, 2011

Back in the summer months, my attention was drawn to a call for submissions by TRIARC (Trinity Irish Art Research Centre) to a post-graduate research symposium.  Thematically concerned with ‘Writing Irish Art History’, the event on 20th November sought to ‘highlight current scholarship on the historiography[1] of Irish art, architecture and material culture’.

Published:  Jan/Feb 2011, Visual Artists News Sheet

I briefly considered submitting a paper, but opted instead for the cosier position of spectator, subsequently acquiring the role of reporting back on my observations to Visual Artists Newssheet.  I was curious about a number of things prior to the event; What is the substance of this doctoral research, which goes on largely behind the scenes of Irish academic institutions? What makes the P.H.D brain tick? And in consistently generating new knowledge, how can research of this nature allude to cultural production in an Irish context, and a reflection on our present position?

TRIARC was formed in 2003 out of a rising interest in the study of Irish art and visual culture.  In her introductory speech, TRIARC director Yvonne Scott described the range of post-graduate courses offered by the research centre.  She discussed the ways in which their outreach programme aims to access a wider audience through the facilitation of events such as this.  Organised entirely by Doctoral Fellows Niamh NicGhabhann and Caroline McGee, the research day unfolded as an interesting forum for a critical engagement with a range of national, cultural and academic issues.

‘Writing Irish Art History’ was convened as part of the ‘Reconstructions of the Gothic Past’ research project (investigated by Professor Roger Stalley and Dr. Rachael Moss and supported by IRCHSS- Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences). The research day was supported by TRIARC, Fourcourts Press, and IRCHSS.

The day- long event saw eight PhD students present aspects of their research, spanning a time-frame from Medieval to the present day.  The projects were interestingly placed within a schedule of thematic groupings, with subtle points of intersection evident across all of the research presented.  The morning session was introduced with a keynote address from Professor Tom Dunne (U.C.C), raising the question ‘Can there be an Irish art history?’  Introducing the elusive nature of Irish identity, he asked the audience to consider how meaningful it is to use ‘Irishness’ as a criteria for analysing or categorising artworks. Displaying iconical landscape painting by Irish artists, he probed issues of nationalism, colonialism and cultural hybridity; thematic concerns which underpinned much of the day’s discussions.

Colleen M. Thomas constructed a theory of ‘Missing Models’ in her account of Christian iconography and medieval stone sculpture.  Two Egyptian hermits (Paul and Anthony) and a raven were depicted in Christian scenes from the 8th century onwards, according to certain texts, but remnants or artefacts have largely disappeared.  This account illustrates the development and transmission of a motif.

The interruption of history, and the gaps which occur as a result of absence, was thematically continued by Keith Smith in his research paper ‘Father Donatus Mooney and Franciscan material Culture’.  Relaying the religious upheaval of the 16th century, he presented archival research and the writings of Donatus Mooney, an archetypal Franciscan monk, to assess the decline of wealth and material culture of the Franciscan order in Ireland.

Tara Kelly illustrated ‘The Treasures of Ireland’ through descriptive accounts of the emerging market for facsimiles (specifically jewellery and metalwork) in 19th century Ireland.  Those artefacts, as collected, inventoried, preserved and subsequently reproduced in a process of propagation, served a cultural movement of the 1800’s which became increasingly concerned with the political promotion of Irishness abroad. The broaches worn by ‘the daughters of Eireann’ promoted a romantic notion of Ireland, popularising jewellery depicting harps and shamrocks as fashionable items.  She alluded to the ‘canon’[2] of this time, which described a set of structures imposed through tradition, in accordance with the agenda promoted through antiquarian scholarship.

Any canon, as studied within institutional contexts, constantly re-affirms its position through the production of knowledge and discourse.  I began to think about the historic campus of Trinity College Dublin (the venue for the event) in terms of its reputation of scholarly excellence, recognised at a worldwide level for its contribution to academic research.

The afternoon session deepened this discussion of ‘canons’, most noticeably with reference to Modernist painting.  Dr Roisin Kennedy (U.C.D) introduced this section with her keynote address ‘Lost in Translation: Irish Art and Irish Art History’.  Proceeding with a discussion of Irish art, with reference to the legacy of the great canon of European art, Dr Kennedy  highlighted the lack of scholarly analysis of Irish art pre-1990’s and addressed the roles of the art critic and art historian in this context.

Re-visiting notions of Irishness, Jenny Fitzgibbon provided an account of Diaspora or émigré content in Irish art history.  The time-based work[3] of artists such as Anne Tallentire and Nick Stewart directly referenced migration as a feature of Irishness in a global context.  Mobility, displacement and notions of the homeland were features of the 1990’s fetish for ethnicity and studies of identity.

Jane Humphries probed the topical issue of the D.I.Y ethic within exhibition-making of the last decade in Ireland.  In direct opposition to the modernist legacy for the white cube[4], her paper ‘Crossing the Threshold’ explored the ‘domestic home as a site for contemporary art installation’, illustrating the ways in which private domestic interiors have been transformed into receptive public spaces.  In an Irish context, artists responded to the construction boom (and its failure to be sustainable), and the propagation of the home as a commodity item.  These projects often occurred within marginalised urban communities, such as ‘Superbia’ and the ‘Breaking Ground’ initiative which formed part of the Ballymun regeneration programme.  Humphries considers that these sites act as spaces somewhere between the art world and the ‘everyday’.

Blaithin Hurley’s paper ‘The Wild Irish Girl of La Serenissima’ explored the relationship between art and literature, specifically travel journals as source material for painting.  Quoting from Lady Sydney Morgan’s[5] vivid, poetic accounts of Italian cities, Hurley demonstrated her theory that Irish painter Daniel Maclise must have used them as source material for his depictions of 19th century Venice.  Maclise had never been to Italy, yet he followed a British trend at this time to produce Italian-themed works.

Staying with the discipline of painting, Mary Jane Boland offered an insight into ‘genre painting’ of the 18th and 19th centuries, defined by historians as paintings which depict scenes of everyday life.  There has, she claims, been a misinterpretation of this term through incorrect over-use, specifically in an Irish context.  Historically, genre painting was considered a lesser art form (particularly in France where the term was derived), as it generally depicted peasant scenes.  In an Irish context, the use of the term genre was subject to vague appropriation by art historians, and applied to artworks in unsuitable ways.  In later years, the emerging role of the critic sought to redefine these paintings primarily as artworks, not just documents of historical merit.

The presence of art criticism within the creative process was addressed in Emma Dwan O’Reilly’s paper ‘Contemporary Art Writing in Ireland’.  Art writing is an emerging discipline which proposes to resist the limitations of criticism, replacing it with an interdisciplinary approach to writing which parallels art making in its capacity for versatility and self-expression.  This blurring of boundaries is of course a post-modern condition, which raises issues of authorship and classification.

Providing an entertaining conclusion to the day’s events, Dr Nicholas Johnson presented a compelling adaption and distilment of transcribed conversations[6] between Samuel Beckett and his friend George Duthuit, the French critic.  Defined specifically as ‘performative criticism’, Dr Johnson (Beckett), Nathan Gordon (George Duthuit) and Marc Atkinson (Assistant) acted out ‘Three Dialogues’, depicting a conversation between Becket and Duthuit about the paintings of Bram Van Velde (1895 – 1981).  The content of the performance amounted to an assessment of Beckett’s radical approach to criticism within the visual arts, conveying a lucid set of artistic criteria, which shed some light on Beckett’s personal artistic aims.  Ground breaking in many ways, Beckett’s aesthetic theories aimed to challenge the formal academic apparatus of criticism.  For him, art should resist distinctions of class, and aestheticization[7] – real art should be prepared to reveal its failures.

On reflection, writing Irish Art History did indeed offer a fascinating insight into the historiography of Irish art, but it succeeded in doing more than that.  In an academic sense the polarity between art history and visual culture was evident.  This was articulated by the researchers who presented, many of whom stated the need for new contexts and platforms for art, criticism and historical research.    Institutional conservatism and a resistance to shifting definitions of discipline may re-affirm Irish art’s marginalised position outside British and European conventions.

This notion of ‘historiography’ relates directly to the actual scholarly process of studying history.  It takes into account the type of historical research being carried out within a particular time and context.  Currently in Ireland and the U.K, historical research is largely (but not exclusively) concerned with the social and the cultural.  In the process of ‘writing Irish art history’, it strikes me that the PhD researchers who presented on the day are involved in a wider, perhaps more urgent, inquiry; the re-definition of Irishness, and the role the arts should take in navigating the present terrain.

As demonstrated through some of the research material presented, notions of ‘Irishness’ have always been subject to complex and turbulent processes of evolution.  The political propagation of nationalism has, historically, been under-pinned by a recognition of Irish cultural uniqueness, communicated through the arts.  From the 19th century onwards Irish identity was defined by a process of separating the Celt from the Anglo Saxon. (Rural not urban, Catholic not protestant, Gaelic language not English language, wild not restrained, poetic not logical[8])  How can out-dated notions of the ‘Celtic Soul’[9] offer an insight into contemporary notions of Irish identity?  In his consistently astute reflections on the current economic crisis, Fintan O’Toole takes a broad perspective on how events of the last decade have impacted on the Irish psyche.

The twin towers of southern Irish identity – Catholicism and nationalism – were already teetering before the great boom began in 1995.  The Celtic Tiger wasn’t just an economic ideology; it was also a substitute identity. It was a new way of being that arrived just at the point when Catholicism and nationalism were not working anymore.[10]

The on-going National Campaign for the Arts states that the arts are vital to the economy, but more poignantly it highlights that the arts are what Ireland is known for, most notably in the fields of music, theatre, literature, poetry and the visual arts.  Similarly, the scholarly qualities of the ‘Celtic mind’[11] have earned Ireland a well established reputation for academic excellence.

From my perspective, education and the arts are Ireland’s two greatest assets.  Through inhabiting history, and constructing new visions of ‘Irishness’, education must be seen as a tool for generating potential options, and creating new ways of thinking. Similarly, artistic practice must be regarded not as a luxurious commodity or a platform for cultural consumption by tourists, but as a way of creating new ways of seeing.  According to Declan McGonagle,  ‘This means describing art and design, not as decorative and therefore dispensable, but as central and indispensable to a reset economy, a re-imagined culture and a remade society[12].

[1]Historiography – a term used to denote the study of the history as well as the methodology of the discipline.  It is generally recognised as an academic term which relates to a reflection on the nature of specialized historical research.

[2] Canon – In the context of the arts and humanities, the ‘canon’ refers to a selection of influential material (artworks, literature, artefacts etc…) which have historically demonstrated a core set of principles and traditions, in keeping with a particular criteria, for depicting and shaping the production of (western) culture.

[3] Time Based Media/Art – a term first introduced in 1972 by UK video artist David Hall to identify moving image, performance and sound work by visual artists.  This genre became more prolific during the mid to late twentieth century.

[4] The White Cube – A term used to describe a neutral space for the display of artwork, which became prominent in the Modernist era.  It came to represent a contentious ideology of the art institution and denoted prescriptive ways of making exhibitions and experiencing art.


[5] Lady Sydney Morgan (1776 – 1859), was an Irish novelist. She gained notoriety with her book ‘The Wild Irish Girl published in 1806


[6] The conversations between Beckett and Duthuit were originally published in ‘Transition’, a French literary magazine in 1949.  The artworks of three painters (Pierre Tal-Coat, André Masson and Bram van Velde) were discussed.

[7] Aestheticization – to judge a subject on aesthetic values only. In this case aestheticization refers to art being viewed as an object of beauty rather than a process of expression.


[8] See Matthew Arnold ‘The Study of Celtic Literature’ (London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1867).

[9] Ibid


[10] Fintan O’Toole ‘Enough Is Enough’ (Faber and Faber, 2010).


[11] Richard Kearney (ed.) ‘The Irish Mind: Exploring Intellectual Traditions’, (Dublin Wolfhound Press, 1985)


[12] Declan McGonagle ‘Its the Culture, Stupid!’, Irish Times, Thursday, March 11, 2010.

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