Book Review: Art, Ireland & The Irish Diaspora:  Chicago, Dublin, New York 1893-1939, Culture, Connections and Controversies

By Eimear O’Connor

 Published by: Irish Academic Press, Newbridge, Co. Kildare

Reviewer: Patricia Curtin Kelly

In her latest book, art historian Eimear O’Connor has covered a period of forty-six years (1893-1939) and the developments in Irish act and culture in that time.

Many of the Irish artists featured are still recognised but the context of influences on their work and marketplace are less well-known.

It is a period during which Ireland experienced tumultuous change, from the fall of the British Prime Minister Gladstone in 1893 to the Home Rule crisis of 1912, to the First World War, the 1916 Rising, the struggle for independence, the Irish Civil War and ultimately the setting up of the Irish Free State in 1922.

A mere fifty years before the period under review, the Great Famine in Ireland had resulted in hundreds of thousands of Irish men, women and children arriving in the United States.   Starving and penniless they staggered off the so-called Coffin Ships and were universally despised.   By 1893, however, many of these Irish Americans had become successful and were anxious to project a good image of Ireland, including its art and culture.

This book, covering Irish art from 1893-1939, is divided into four sections, introducing Irish artists and culture on both sides of the Atlantic

The book is divided into four distinct sections that could almost stand alone.   It concentrates on Irish art displayed in the influential international fairs and exhibitions that promoted not only the industrial progress of each country but also its artistic work and culture.

It introduces Irish artists, as well as detailing the main characters responsible for progressing Irish artistic endeavours on both sides of the Atlantic.  It charts how Irish interests were promoted by well-meaning people whereas, from a Government perspective, the wish was to project an image of a developing and modern Irish State.   In any event, the prevailing view of Irish Americans who had a longing for a nostalgic Ireland was more of an influence on Irish artists and the buying public.

Arts and crafts

Section One details the efforts to promote Irish arts and crafts as a means of providing employment for Irish people, mainly featuring lace and other craft work.   To modern eyes, this seems more of a charitable effort rather than a promotion of Irish art.   The main characters were Mrs. Alice Hart and Lady Aberdeen.

Early Irish exhibits at world fairs appears to modern eyes more as a charitable effort than promoting Irish art.

While both were well-intentioned, they still maintained a rivalry that could have jeopardised their projects.  Mrs. Hart founded the Donegal Industries Fund and participated at the Irish Village at Olympia, in London, in 1880.    Lady Aberdeen founded the Irish Industries Association and represented Ireland at both the Irish Village at Olympia and the Edinburgh Exhibition in 1886.

Both ladies had exhibitions at the Chicago World Fair in 1893, in two separate Irish Villages, thus complicating an already complicated message to sell Ireland and Irish crafts to the Americans.

The Department of Agriculture & Technical Industries were at the Glasgow International Exhibition in 1901 and the Cork International Exhibition in 1902, again representing the arts and crafts of Ireland.   Overall, the aim was to promote Irish culture, heritage, industry and agriculture.   Horace Plunkett, who set up the Irish Agricultural Organisation Association, was to the fore during this period.

He worked closely with George Russell who was also an artist and whose mysticism and mysterious paintings became popular in the United States.   Both became friends with John Quinn, an Irish American lawyer, who became a major player in encouraging interest in Irish artists.   In 1904, he was involved in an exhibition of Irish artists at the St. Louis Exhibition, including Mildred Anne Butler and William Orpen.   In 1905, he was involved in the Madison Square Garden Exhibition in New York and the Irish International Exhibition in Dublin in 1907.

Hugh Lane and modern art

Section Two outlines the influence Hugh Lane had, on both side of the Atlantic, and the exhibitions of modern art which he organised in Dublin, London and New York.   It also details the problems that arose in finding a suitable permanent gallery in Dublin for his artistic bequest.

Hugh Lane and his promotion of modern art was influential on both sides of the Altantic.

His aunt, Lady Gregory, took up the gauntlet, following his untimely death on the ill-fated Lusitania.   The reverberations of this mix-up are still with us today as the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin and the National Gallery in London exchange his paintings, on a regular basis, rather than having them all housed in one gallery in Dublin which was his original intention.

John Quinn was also involved in the Armoury Exhibition in 1913 in New York.  In addition, he was friendly with Lady Gregory and assisted her in her fund-raising efforts for the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.  Jack B. Yeats, Nathaniel Hone and George Russell were among the Irish artists at this exhibition which was specifically held to promote modern art in the United States.

The painting that evoked the most comment was Marcel Duchamps “Nude Descending a Staircase” which must have been a sharp contrast to the Irish artists and presumably more conservative American artists on view.   Back in Dublin, emerging young Irish artists such as Evie Hone, Mary Swanzy and Mainie Jellett were exhibiting.   However, Irish viewers were also sceptical of cubism and other modern elements.

Irish emigre artists

Section Three details Irish emigres in New York, such as the three Hackett brothers.   The youngest, E. Byrne Hackett, owned the Brick Row Book Shop in New York.   He also exhibited Irish artists there such as Harry Clarke, the well-known stained-glass artist and illustrator.   Michael Power O’Malley and Patrick Tuohy were Irish born artists who emigrated to New York and both exhibited extensively there.

Probably one of the best-known promoters of Irish art in New York at the time was Helen Hackett, ex-wife of E. Byrne-Hackett who continued this interest after their separation.   Artists that she exhibited included Patrick Tuohy, Charles Lamb, Estelle Solomons, Michael MacLiammoir, George Russell, Sean Keating and Jack B.Yeats.   She visited Ireland in 1929 and her account reads like a social diary as well as a “who’s who” of Irish artists and writers.

Projecting modernity

Section Four details the dithering about whether the Irish Government would participate in the Chicago World Fair in 1933.   After the debacle of two competing Irish entrants at previous Fairs, there was a fear that separate Irish American interests might again spoil the Irish Government’s wish to project a modern and progressive Ireland.

Opened in 1929, the Shannon Hydroelectric Scheme, which generated electricity from the River Shannon, was a central theme as well as Irish visual art and craft, including stained-glass, jewellery, lace, furniture, linen, embroidery, carpets and metal work.

Whereas Irish Americans pined for sentimental portrayals of the ‘old country’, the new Irish state was keen to project the image of progressive, modernising country.

The National Museum showcased a centenary of progress of Irish Architecture and the visual artists on show included George Russell, Paul Henry, Jack B. Yeats and Sean Keating.   The tension between the image the Irish Government wished to project and the more sentimental Irish ideal of some Irish Americans arose again as yet another Irish American group set up another Irish Village.   The latter leant heavily on a longing for the “old homestead” which sentiment still enjoyed prominence among Irish Americans.

In 1936, the Floating Ireland Exhibition was presented aboard the California vessel in New York.   This was such a success that it probably persuaded the Irish Government to participate in the New York World Fair.  The landscapes of Kerry, Donegal and Connemara were particularly well received.  There was still anxiety about dealing with the conflicting demands of “love for the old country” and the government’s wish to “be part of the world of tomorrow.”

Much space is devoted to the filming of the Man of Aran by Robert Flaherty.   In spite of the care taken in its making, it was universally seen as a missed opportunity to show the real hardship endured by islanders rather than the more romanticised version of life portrayed in the film.

While on location, Frances Hubbard Flaherty took extensive photographs and these also inspired Irish artists.   For example, the famous scene of an Aran Islander mending his currach, by Sean Keating, is clearly inspired by one of her photographs.   Keating would have met and probably helped the producers of this film due to his knowledge of the island.

In 1939, Victor Waddington, a Dublin based gallery owner, organised an exhibition of Irish artists at the Astor Hotel in New York.   This included Sean O’Sullivan, Sean Keating, Maurice McGonigle and Harry Kernoff.

Also, in 1939, Ireland pulled out all the stops in its objective to present a new forward looking Irish Free State at the New York World Fair.   The Irish architect, Michael Scott, was commissioned to design the Irish Pavilion which he did in the shape of a shamrock that would seem to be at odds with the image of a new Ireland.

The hydro-electric power plant on the River Shannon was again a feature as well as extensive exhibits of Irish goods including stout, whiskey, food stuffs, pottery, woollens, poplin and stained-glass.   The centre piece was a large-scale mural by Sean Keating, depicting a melange of images of Ireland, including the Shannon Hydro-Electric Plant, the first concrete manufacturing plant, the first airplane and riding to hounds.

This was not the only large-scale mural that Keating was asked to do by the Irish Government.   He also produced one for the International Labour Organisation in Geneva after the Irish Government rejected an earlier Harry Clarke stained-glass window as an “unsuitable” image of Ireland.

Among the artists who exhibited were George Russel, Jack B. Yeats, Paul Henry and Sean Keating who were all well known by then to American viewers.   Evie Hone’s stained-glass window “My Four Green Fields,” which now has pride of place in Government Buildings in Dublin, was also on show.   Unfortunately, due to lack of funds, the building was demolished, including the Keating mural.

This book encompasses a rare view of Ireland over the forty-six years and how connections were made with the United States which continue to this day

This is such a wide-ranging book that it has been difficult to pick out highlights.   Suffice to say that it encompasses a rare view of Ireland over the forty-six years and how connections were made with the United States which continue to this day.

It is interesting to note that most of the artists featured in the book are still popular and still fetch high prices at auction on both sides of the Atlantic.   In 2018, Quinnipiac University, in Connecticut,  brought its exhibition of Irish artists to Ireland for a three venue exhibition.   Most of the artists on view also featured during the period under review.

In addition, many newer Irish artists were also included, such as Michael Farrell, Rowan Gillespie, Padraig Reaney, Dorothy Cross and Brian Maguire.  This well-researched book will be an invaluable source of information for anyone interested in Irish art, Irish culture and their promotion and development.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *