The Sunday Times - Shaping Ireland at the National Gallery

The Sunday Times

Review by Cristin Leech

Review: Shaping Ireland at the National Gallery of Ireland
Visitors to the NGI’s show will find plenty to admire in landscapes past and present


Review: Shaping Ireland at the National Gallery of Ireland
Visitors to the NGI’s show will find plenty to admire in landscapes past and present
Cristín Leach

There is a feeling of a tangible shift in Irish art right now, and some of the transformation is reflected in Shaping Ireland, a game-changing exhibition of Irish landscape art at the National Gallery of Ireland (NGI). Here, at last, is a bigger picture show from our flagship national art institution. Here, at last, is a more nuanced, more complicated, more comprehensive take on a subject that has always been one of our most crucial and self-defining themes: the land.
Shaping Ireland pins its colours to the mast from the first room. It begins with a story that it tells through to the last image in the show: that the depiction of Ireland in art is an epic tale told across centuries, technical advances and medium changes, by artists of widely varying political opinions and talent. This story has been told in styles as individual and distinctive as each of these artists, by patrons and institutions such as the NGI, and by us in terms of what we choose to look at and value, and what we read into this imagery when we do.
The first room is themed Mountains and Wetlands, and there is a feeling that we have finally come full circle in a gallery that up until recently did not show, or collect, any art made after 1950. Here are those iconic, tourist-board-beloved Paul Henry paintings of the west, including Dawn, Connemara and Early Morning in Connemara (1920). Here is The Harbour Leenane by James Humbert Craig (1877-1944) and a Bartholomew Colles Watkins view of the Killaries painted around 1888. They hang, frame to frame, with Clare Langan’s sepia-hued inkjet print images of the Skelligs from her 2013 film installation The Floating World. They hang in a room with Dorothy Cross’s Glassilaun Snow Peak, a 2014 photograph.

This show features 50 artists, 20 of whom are living and working today. It’s an unprecedented move for the NGI, and one that not only brings new life to the older works in the collection — the earliest here date back more than 250 years — but also lets the mid to late 20th-century and early 21st-century works gathered by curator Donal Maguire take their place in that timeline.
James Humbert Craig was an artist from Belfast who took sketching tours in Connemara and Donegal. Watkins was a Dubliner who spent much of his time travelling around Ireland, depicting the landscape in a Romantic style. Henry loved the west, but he was always a blow-in: Belfast-born, London then Dublin-based, and so enamoured with Achill Island that a short trip became a 10- year stay from 1910 to 1919. Henry, Craig and Watkins could be categorised as drop-ins to landscapes they wanted to capture. Cross is a Connemara resident; Langan lives in Dingle. One of the questions this show invites us to ask is, who has captured the land in art, and for who?

While artists such as James Arthur O’Connor were concerned with producing a topographically accurate take, as in A View of Lough Mask, circa 1818, by the 1980s artists such as Sean McSweeney were trying to capture something less visible: feeling, memory, connection. There’s a dark slash of deep green-black at the centre of McSweeney’s 1986 Sligo Landscape, a vibrant glowing yellow-green beneath the surface. It’s a painting more about a sense of place than a realistic depiction. It’s about the intangible. This question of how we feel when we look at images of Ireland is also at the heart of this ambitious show.
Room 2, Settlements and Territories, contains a 1994 photograph by Willie Doherty of a concrete-blocked road on the Northern Ireland border. It hangs next to a painting of Dun Aonghasa, a Bronze Age fort on Inis Mor by the 19th-century antiquarian George Petrie. It’s an acknowledgement that all artists are working in the context of all that has come before, in art, politics and history.
Petrie was a scholarly Victorian painter seeking to capture Ireland as an object of curiosity, to be discovered and documented, and to have stories read into it about the sublime, beauty and philosophy; it was a place to discover meaning. Doherty shows us the reality of a messy, mostly rural border: no wall, but a more insidious kind of obstruction.
Shaping Ireland also asks, what is the land for? Pleasure, leisure, growth, industry? The five rooms are labelled Mountains and Wetlands; Settlements and Territories; Fields and Pastures; Gardens and Parks; and Industry and Infrastructure. The structure seems to offer a neat visual essay, but the threads that run through each section also run between the rooms, and through the entire show. The 14-arch bridge at Ballyshannon captured by Thomas Roberts in 1776 could tell another story, sitting next to Blaise Smith’s Lee Tunnel painting, commissioned by Cork County council in 1999.

Antiquarians glorify the past, and believe we can learn from it. Contemporary artists look at the now and wonder what it tells us about where we are going. What is invigorating about this show is the way in which photographs such as Doherty’s and paintings such as Smith’s, Mairead O hEocha’s and Nick Miller’s talk directly to the older artists’ work.

Photographer Amelia Stein’s black-and-white shot of a Mayo cottage under an ominous sky hangs in a room with Paul Henry paintings. Her Teachaín a’ Watch (2015) captures a lookout, prompting more questions about the ways in which the landscape becomes politicised by human presence. It makes us wonder if that’s what Henry was trying to avoid, the politics of it all — and just capture the light.
From Coogan’s Shed (2004) by Miller shows the paint-covered edges of the box truck he used as a mobile studio, framing the view of fields and trees. It’s a reminder that every view of place is framed by a particular perspective — one that is often invisible to the viewer. William Ashford’s A View of Dublin from Chapelizod (1795-98) was commissioned by the lord lieutenant of Ireland, to show the burgeoning city as a place for progress and profit, to instill a sense of ownership and pride in its commissioner — and his peers, who would view it.
This is a pay-in show, and predominantly worth the entry fee because these works have never been gathered together and asked to tell this story, in this institution, in quite this way before. It joins some of the dots. It’s also a clear statement of intent on the part of the NGI. Here, in the same exhibition, you will find Donald Teskey near William Orpen; Martin Gale near Evie Hone; Nathaniel Hone the Younger, Basil Blackshaw, George Barrett, Norah McGuinness, Rose Barton, Sean Keating, Jack B Yeats and contemporary artists Caoimhe Kilfeather, Nan Goldin, Ruth Lyons, Sean Scully and Camille Souter.

Like an essay in five parts, Shaping Ireland asks us to think about beauty and progress, about landscape manipulation, about colonisation and industrialisation. It asks us to think about what is natural and what is made, who commissions, who depicts and who consumes images of the land. It’s not asking us to simply look and be awed by beauty, or by the talent of the artists who have depicted it.
It asks us to look beneath surfaces at the layers of political, social and historical meaning below. It’s the start of a conversation about how artists have portrayed the Irish landscape and the stories they have prompted us to tell ourselves about that and our land, Ireland.
Shaping Ireland, NGI, Dublin, until July 7, €5-€15 (children and members free);