Art and national identity are to be seen in a fresh light with the launch of Ireland on Show, exploring how Ireland displayed its art from the late 18th to the early 20th century.
This new book, by Fintan Cullen, Professor of Art History at The University of Nottingham, presents a new view of important cultural dimensions in Irish life. The author has even been invited to present a copy to the President of Ireland.
The book’s launch in Ireland takes place on April 3 at the Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane, with the Irish Minister for Education and Skills Ruairí Quinn as guest speaker.
Cultural complexity Ireland on Show: Art, Union and Nationhood
, published by Ashgate, analyses the impact of the display of art as a significant political and cultural feature in the make-up of 19th-century Ireland — and how Ireland was viewed beyond its own shores, in particular, Great Britain and the United States.
One aspect of the book examines how different political regimes are reflected in what museums and art galleries display. “My book deals with the politics of display in 19th-century Ireland, how museums and galleries developed, but it also deals with whose art is being looked at. Given that Ireland was part of the United Kingdom during the 19th-century: was what was seen an art of union or of a nationalist separate nation?
“Inspiration came from many years of wondering what 19th-century exhibitions and museums and galleries were like; and what art one could have seen in Ireland at different stages of the century — at the beginning, middle and end.”
One of the case studies he uses is the image
that appears on the book’s cover from around 1900. This is an imperialist statue of an Irishman who died in Kabul during the Second Afghan War in the 1880s which stood in the Centre Court of Dublin’s newly built Science and Art Museum for the first decades of the institution’s existence until it was removed with the gaining of independence in the 1920s.
The Centre Court of what is now named The National Museum of Ireland
exhibits Ireland’s world famous pre- and early Christian art work made of gold, which in the early days of the museum was relegated to an upstairs series of galleries. Now it is central to the museum’s display.
The final chapter of the book deals with the opening of the Hugh Lane Gallery of Modern Art
in Dublin in 1908. “This happens to have been one of the first galleries I really explored as a teenager in the early 1970s as I attended a school nearby and used to pop in now and again,” said Professor Cullen. “By chance it is also going to be the venue for the launch of my book on April 3.”
This work, which goes beyond art history, has been in development for several years and its range and scope caught the attention of Ireland’s president.
“The writing of the book took about nine months with an Arts and Humanities Research Council
-funded period of leave and University leave,” said Professor Cullen. “I have been working on aspects of the book for 10 years, with the first relevant published piece appearing in a book of essays in 2004.
“Another five pieces were published in journal form after that while some six or so conference papers allowed me to rehearse arguments before getting the book ready for publication.”
Ireland on Show provides an interesting counterpoint to previous work by Fintan Cullen which intelligently explored Irish cultural influences on 19th-century England.
In 2005, Professor Cullen and Professor Roy Foster from the University of Oxford co-created an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London, Conquering England: Ireland in Victorian England, which took as its name a quote from George Bernard Shaw’s political journalism that: “England had conquered Ireland, so there was nothing for it but to come over and conquer England.”
That exhibition explored the diversity of the Irish in London and their influence in the visual arts, literature, theatre, journalism and politics. They argued that the worlds of the visual arts, politics, literature and the stage retain the most vivid impression of Irish influence in Queen Victoria’s reign.
“The new President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins graciously asked that he be presented with a copy of my book on April 2 at his official residence in Dublin,” said Professor Cullen. “I look forward to doing so accompanied by my wife and children.
“President Higgins is seriously interested in Ireland’s culture. I think the blend of new inquiry into art institutions that appears in my book and questions about their historical relevance have interested him for some time, especially as he was a memorable Minister for the Arts and Culture back in the 1990s.”
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