Akron Irish: Arty Farty
By Lisa O’Rourke
Literally everyone who has been to Ireland talks about how beautiful it is. It is a cliché that you could bet on, that upon their return from Eire, the tourist will become a minor Yeats attempting to describe their trip. The fast-moving island skies, the rugged landscape dotted with iconic castles and those hundreds of hues of green, so plentiful that they defy naming; they make an impression.
Even people who prefer Cancun to rugged cold islands, leave Ireland with an imprint on their souls. And we haven’t even mentioned the quaint towns, lovely harbors, bucolic farms and striking citizenry that are all part of Ireland. Visually, it is a unique and evocative place, leaving many a tourist frustrated in their attempts to capture it.
This begs the question, where are the artists? Why aren’t there beret-clad painters setting up easels on the Quays in Galway or the street cafés in Dublin? Frankly, in both places, you are much more likely to see a busker playing jigs than an easel. Visual art does not have a strong tradition in Ireland.
An Irish Artist
Without Google, I would bet you would be hard-pressed to name a single Irish artist. The Irish may even have a bit of disdain for the artist, especially contemporary sculptors. There has not been one recent public sculpture erected in the country that didn’t have a raunchy nickname within a week, i.e.., Molly Malone at the end of Grafton Street became “the Tart with the Cart.”
This lack of appreciation was not helped by the stereotypical art in an old Irish farmhouse, which consisted of a Sacred Heart picture, an airbrushed photo of JFK and a horsey painting or a “Men of Aran” reproduction. We’ll call it different traditions; there are strong artistic traditions, but they are in different disciplines.
Why didn’t art become sought-after in Ireland? Thinking about it, it is easy to see a few possible obstacles. The first logical problem has to be the weather, which has the potential to ruin just about anything you might do.
The insistent drop of heavy rain that puts an end to many plans is fatal to a painting excursion; it would inhibit a day of “al fresco” painting in the most determined of artists. Another obstacle is access to materials, like brushes, paints and canvases. They are expensive and hard to find in Ireland. It is a “chicken and eggs” problem, the lack of demand fuels the lack of resources, and art requires constant materials.
On the consumer end, buying art is relatively new to the country, coming in on the Celtic Tiger. It is still rare there to see building space devoted to galleries. Art is sold more at festivals or as an add-on in a shop or café.
Lastly, it is fair to lay some of the blame on the traditional Irish education. It has a history of being driven more by strong immersion in the “basics,” leaving little time to devote to non-essentials- not very art friendly it seems. Contrast this with the iconic Irish art forms of music and storytelling, which are ones that cost little to nothing, don’t depend on weather and materials, and travel anywhere.
National Gallery of Art
There is a National Gallery of Art in Dublin, oh yes there is, and I went there. My first and only visit began with high hopes; this is the singular Irish dwelling of Art. Maybe it was my own fault for setting myself up, but those expectations were quickly flattened.
In my recollection, everything from the building itself, to the exhibition areas, to the paintings, were drab and understated, just kind of there, as if hoping that they got this up right instead of putting any real passion in the project.
I am sure the suspense is building as to whose work is in that building! Two of the prominent ones have names that are familiar in a different context, Yeats and Francis Bacon. Jack Butler Yeats was a prominent Irish artist in his day, along with being the brother of the other Yeats, the one who wrote some poems.
Francis Bacon, who was not the English philosopher, was much more of a pop art contemporary painter in the gritty, shocking school of the mid-twentieth century art.
Current Status of Art in Ireland
The rest of the collection would be classified as minor European old paintings. It would be harsh to say that this is not worth a visit, but I have not seen it on anyone’s “can’t be missed” lists.
So, what about the status of art in Ireland? Global warming has helped the weather and the economy has created both more consumers and hobbyists. With tourism being an important part of the economy, there is also a market for tourists who want to take something home for over the sofa. The art movement has expanded. Look a few up.
There are some of the Thomas Kincaid school of soft romantic light and idealized impressionistic scenes. For me, those do not have much feel or inherent Irishness about them. There is another style that has a pronounced Celtic aesthetic, a more graphic art mode with a Book of Kells flavor. Still not quite my favorite.
I like the artists who capture the feel of Ireland, the heavy weather expressionism made of dark skies and white cottages rolling into a sea that melts with the sky. The artist J.P. Rooney’s expressive oil paintings capture a primitive, rugged Ireland.
I was also a fan of the posters for the Galway Arts Festival. The festival produced a poster per year to sell in Galway. Some of them were really lovely, despite their commercial intent, imaginative and lyrical. Arts funding is at an ebb in Ireland at the moment and the posters have stopped for now, despite demand.
OK, so France and Italy and increasingly the US, dominate the visual art world. It just is not really Ireland’s thing. Their art is auditory and portable, the story and the song. The Irish express themselves much more with music and words.
But just like they do in many other ways, the Irish are finding a voice in the art world. It is a unique, lyrical and expressive voice. It fits right in with the rest of them.
*Lisa O’Rourke is an educator from Akron. She has a BA in English and a Master’s in Reading/Elementary Education. Lisa is a student of everything Irish, primarily Gaeilge. She runs a Gaeilge study group at the AOH/Mark Heffernan Division, is married to Dónal and has two sons, Danny and Liam. She enjoys art, reading, music, and travel and spending time with her dog, cats and fish. Lisa can be contacted at [email protected].
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