Irish Visual Arts
ART IN IRELAND
Famous as a land of saints and scholars, Ireland is unique among the nations of Europe due to the strength of its pagan Celtic culture as well as its strong Christian heritage. These diverse influences have long been reflected in the visual arts across Leinster, Munster, Connacht and Ulster, and even today inspire a great deal of contemporary Irish painting, sculpture, ceramics, stained glass and high quality crafts. Beginning with the Neolithic stone carvings at Newgrange, followed by the masterpieces of Celtic Iron Age metalwork, the glorious illuminated gospel manuscripts and the High Cross sculptures of the first Millennia, Irish visual art has made significant contributions to European civilization.
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And while perhaps lacking the acclaimed international stature of writers like WB Yeats, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett, a number of famous Irish artists (eg. painters like William Orpen and Francis Bacon; sculptors like Rowan Gillespie) have established worldwide reputations in the global art market.
Irish art is supported by numerous bodies, both national and local. Government policy on art and culture is coordinated by the Irish Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism, whose role is to promote the practice and appreciation of all the creative arts, and to preserve their cultural assets for the future - including a number of national art museums and libraries in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and elsewhere. It is advised and assisted in this task by two subsidiary bodies: The Irish Arts Council (An Chomhairle Ealaíon), an autonomous agency which promotes art across the provinces, and Culture Ireland (Cultúr Na hÉireann), a body that supports Irish Artists and cultural activities abroad. Cross-border cultural projects are organized in conjunction with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.
National funding for the arts is mainly distributed via the Arts Council, and makes use of innovative fundraising systems like the nationwide Percent For Art Scheme and the National Lottery.
On a local level, each county of Ireland has a full-time arts officer whose task is to promote visual, performance and literary art throughout the area. Some counties have excellent online arts information services, while others are still upgrading to this new medium.
The lead agency for the Irish crafts industry is the Crafts Council of Ireland (CCoI). Unlike the Arts Council, which is an autonomous semi-state body funded by the Department of Arts, the CCoI is a limited company funded at home, via Enterprise Ireland, by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. It also supports and showcases Irish craftsmen and women at overseas events, such as the recent 15th Annual Exposition of Sculptural Objects & Functional Art (SOFA) in Chicago.
There is no single official body which represents painters, sculptors and other creative practitioners in the 32 counties, or the Republic. There are however several artist-run institutions and organizations which seek to represent the interests of differing groups of artists.
Royal Hibernian Academy
Royal Dublin Society
Visual Artists Ireland
The National Sculpture Factory
Other Visual Artist Organizations
There are numerous other smaller bodies involving artists in Ireland. They include:
Water Colour Society of Ireland
Ulster Watercolour Society
Ulster Society of Women Artists
Ireland is home to several world class museums and galleries which are located around the country. These include:
National Museum of Ireland (Dublin)
These state-run museums are complemented by a variety of private Irish art galleries throughout the country, hosting regular exhibitions of painting, sculpture, photography, printmaking, ceramics, video and installation by emerging as well as established Irish artists.
NCAD, which began as an 18th century private drawing school in Dublin, run by Robert West, is the pre-eminent institution of art education in the Republic of Ireland. It offers the largest syllabus of art and design degrees in the State at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. Second only to NCAD, the Crawford College of Art and Design was also founded in the 18th century, although it wasn't until James Brenan became headmaster in the 19th century that the Crawford became one of the top art colleges in Ireland.
The leading Irish fine art valuers and auction houses are based in Dublin. The pre-eminent firms include James Adam and Sons (Dublin), de Veres Art Auctions (Dublin), Whyte & Sons (Dublin), Loughlin Bowe (Kilkenny), and John Ross & Company (Belfast). Other auctioneers include: Dolan's (Galway), Morgan O'Driscoll (Cork) and Dublin auctioneer Garret O'Connor. Most deal in objets d'art, furniture, glassware, jewellery, ceramics, and rare manuscripts as well as fine art painting and sculpture.
Each of Ireland's four regions has its own unique archeological and artistic history, from the earliest prehistoric architecture, Celtic metalwork, religious manuscripts and sculpture, to the most modern contemporary art forms.
The evolution and development of Irish art has taken place over at least 5,000 years. Although much remains unknown about its early origins and influences, here is a short summary. For more, see: History of Irish Art.
Neolithic Tomb, Newgrange (3300 BCE)
Celtic Metalwork and Stone Sculpture
(400 BCE - 800 CE)
Early Christian Illuminated Manuscripts
High Cross Sculpture (c.750-1150)
Stagnation and Occupation (c.1200-1700)
18th Century Visual Arts in Ireland
19th Century Visual Arts in Ireland
20th Century Visual Arts in Ireland
After the birth of the new State in 1921, 20th century Irish art was strengthened in numerous ways, not least by greater investment in education and public arts facilities (eg. the Dublin Metropolitan Gallery of Modern Art, founded after Hugh Lane). However, a degree of isolation and cultural stagnation became evident - as reflected in the dispute between the traditionalists versus the more avant-garde Dublin artists: a dispute which culminated in the formation of the Irish Exhibition of Living Art (1943) to provide an alternative showcase to the RHA for contemporary Irish painting. More recent landmarks include the 'Troubles' in Northern Ireland, which greatly impeded the development of an all-Ireland approach to art and culture.
20th century Irish sculpture fared no better. From the early 19th century to roughly 1950, most Irish sculptors devoted the bulk of their energy to commemorating deceased bishops, politicians, soldiers and rebels. Not until the second half of the 20th century did the subject matter widen sufficiently to permit real opportunities for individual expression. See also: 20th Century Irish Artists.
Despite the political and economic problems of the latter part of the 20th century, the Irish fine art market continued to flourish throughout the island, as evidenced by the growing number of record prices achieved by Irish artists in auctioneers sales rooms. In addition, during the 1990s, new funding and support structures for professional painters and sculptors, along with the development of new art galleries and commercial collections, created a new climate of cultural opportunity and awareness. The Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) was opened in Dublin, and the Lewis Glucksman Gallery in Cork City, while three centres were established to support sculpture, including the National Sculpture Factory in Cork. At the same time, Irish art organizations like the Arts Council began to pay particular attention to developing public access to the arts in towns like Wexford, Waterford, Cork, Tralee, Listowel, Mullingar, Limerick, Galway, Castlebar, Sligo, Monaghan, Drogheda and Dublin, and most local authorities now employ specialist Arts Officers. In addition, new legislation was introduced which abolished tax on the artistic income of full-time artists. This measure considerably improved the financial position of many indigenous painters and sculptors. It also helped to attract numerous artists from overseas, thus strengthening the visual arts skill-base in the country. See also: Contemporary Irish Artists.
The 21st century began well for the Irish art market. World record prices were set at Sothebys and Christie's auctions for Jack B. Yeats, Willliam Orpen, John Lavery and William Scott (1913-89), Louis le Brocquy (1916-2012), Sean Scully (b.1945), and Nathaniel Hone (The Elder) (1718-84), among others. Meantime works by Francis Bacon (1909-1992) smashed all records for contemporary painting. (For more details, see: Most Expensive Irish Paintings.)
For a personal view of the top contemporary painters from the 32 counties of Ireland, see Best Irish Artists.
Recession (2008 onwards)
Historically, the greatest single influence (both positive and negative) on Irish art has been geography. For example, the relatively sheltered position of the country ensured that Ireland was the only Western European country to avoid Romanization, thus permitting the full development of Celtic style design traditions. It also facilitated the early growth of Christianity as well as the unique Irish monastic culture (which duly spread to England and the Continent), both of which (along with Celtic craftwork) were key factors in the Irish Art Renaissance of 500-800 CE. Ireland's island status has also helped to inculcate a strong national identity, without which the country's artistic traditions would surely have been subsumed within those of its more populous neighbours.
On the negative side, Ireland's "sheltered" position has also contributed to the country's isolation from European trends and developments in all the visual arts. In addition, it contributed to the immense power of a Roman Catholic Church which had no hesitation in blocking artistic as well as social reform. As a result, even after Irish Independence, many writers (eg. James Joyce and Samuel Beckett) and visual artists (eg. Francis Bacon) preferred to practice their creativity outside Ireland. In addition, it was only in the second half of the 20th century that museums and galleries were allowed to widen their acquisitions policies to include modern works, previously banned or frowned upon. Arguably, all this retarded the developed and appreciation of art in Ireland by many decades. Even today, for instance, Irish art-collectors appear to place an unreasonably high value on Irish painting, compared to works by "foreign" artists.
On the positive side, there is no lack of artistic talent in the 32 counties. Irish artists continue to excel at home and abroad in all media and genres. Moreover, the country's "green" image, neutral status, and zero-tax structure for artistic income, should continue to hold and attract high quality artists.
On the negative side, as in other countries, there has been a detectable slide towards conceptual and other non-representational art forms. So far, this tendency has gone largely unchallenged - indeed, judging by recent Graduate Art Shows in Ireland, it continues to be encouraged. However, given the meltdown in the international contemporary art market, as well as the rise in popularity of traditional painting - as practised by many Eastern European schools - this conceptual/abstract approach may prove to be a long term weakness. One hopes that the Irish arts establishment, as well as the educational authorities at NCAD and the Crawford College of Art and Design, have the situation under review.
A critical factor for the future of Irish art in the twenty-first century will be how artists, curators and galleries (among others) manage to exploit the Internet. For example, at present, Irish art museums are way behind their international competitors in this regard - it is still not possible to view the major Irish collections of art online. By comparison, many American and European museums offer a wealth of online educational resources. Given the huge wealth generated by the Irish economy during the 1990s and 2000s, and also the significant contributions to the arts from the National Lottery and Percent For Art scheme, it seems strange that Ireland lags so far behind in this critical area.
For more information about visual arts in Ireland, see: Art Encyclopedia.