I reviewed this show for The Sunday Times when it opened at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Feb 2013. A shorter version of this article was published, so here is the full version. The show transferred to the Crawford Gallery in Cork, and is now at the FE McWilliam Studio and Gallery in Banbridge Co Down. CLH
Analysing Cubism at the Irish Museum of Modern Art opens on a bum note and it’s difficult to understand why. In a room containing three mediocre Mary Swanzy paintings, the eye is drawn to Canal Embankment c.1920, an exploration of the Cubist style. It is not particularly accomplished, the shapes are roughly formed, the colour hastily applied; the whole composition appears fast and incomplete, like a half-concluded argument, sketched out rather than hammered home. It does not bode well for the rest of the show. This makes no sense because Analysing Cubism, conceived at the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork and produced in collaboration with the Irish Museum of Modern Art, has the potential to make a truly stunning statement about an exciting time in Irish art history and a number of twentieth century Irish artists whose names should loom larger in our collective cultural consciousness.
Swanzy is a star of the show. Her Woman in a White Bonnet (c1920) is the exhibition’s poster girl. We are told it is “possibly” a self-portrait and that she was “possibly the most avant garde Irish painter of her generation”. Why not make the claim, if she was? This tentativeness dogs the mood of the exhibition, a feeling that excuses must be made for arguing in favour of the female artists at its centre, that reasons must be given for why they did not receive the accolades reserved for their male counterparts during their lifetimes and explanations sought for why they continue to be marginalised or forgotten when lists of our past masters are compiled.
These are all worthy and worthwhile concerns – we shouldn’t neglect them – but they dominate the exhibition. We can read the history in the catalogue. In terms of showing the work now, for a new generation of viewers, why not display the best paintings with pride and let them speak for themselves? The strongest ones do. Swanzy was one of the best artists of her generation, May Guinness was a true talent, Norah McGuinness produced one of the most impressive paintings in the exhibition but is given very little attention here. Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone are key to the story and are the most represented artists in the show, but as painters they did not produce the best work.
The story of how two Irishwomen in their twenties, Jellett and Hone, knocked on painter Albert Gleizes’s door in Paris in 1921 and persuaded him to become their teacher has accrued near-mythical status. They wanted to paint in a modern manner and Gleize’s extreme form of Cubism offered a practical shortcut to that. At home, the debate over partition was raging. The pair had been studying with another Cubist in Paris, Andre Lhote, but sought out the clear-cut instructions that after reading his treatise on the subject, they felt Gleizes could provide.
A decade after abstraction shocked viewers at the Salon des Independents in Paris, Gleizes was still pursuing an analytical form of Cubism while pioneers such as Picasso and Braque had moved on. Dadism was happening, Surrealism was emerging. As Peter Murray of the Crawford points out, Jellett and Hone “fall within a particular academic phase of modernism that flourished in the 1920s.” He finds Gleizes’ early paintings “overworked and visually confused”. He’s right. Gleizes’ principles of rotation and translation, on which his style was based, were not and are still not enough to carry a painting alone. Painting governed by rules never excites and the self-conscious nature of practice and experiment dominates too many of the works in this show.
The paintings are grouped into logical categories, but with academic material such as this it would have been better to wow viewers with one or two of the best bits before going back to explain how the artists got there. If museums want audiences to get excited about the art of the past they need to offer us more than a history lesson, especially when the story is not filled with famous names. They must put at least some of the most eye-catching part of the story first.
A small drawing by Picasso hardly justifies his inclusion in the press release. There is a muddled, grey Braque still life, and a single Juan Gris painting, Pierrot (1921) from the National Gallery of Ireland Collection. These do little to place the Irish painters in a significant international context. Instead the focus is on Lhote, a minor teaching figure, Gleizes and the Irish women who attended their classes.
There’s a great story to be told here if only you can pick it out. Here’s how: begin with McGuinness’ Garden Green from 1962. Among many examples of experimentation and practice, this painting is suddenly accomplished. It incorporates the lessons of Cubism without the analytical froideur students of the style frequently allowed to dominate the overall message. The still life elements are a key narrative device. Seen through an open window framed by roses, the girl in the background has left the room – with its domestic accoutrements of potatoes, pot, cup, spoon, bottles and tea towel – and escaped, barefoot, wearing a simple white dress, into the wild, welcoming green of the outdoors.
In the search for a visual language for the new Irish state, Jellett argued that Cubism was the logical successor to Celtic abstraction. Garden Green is a painting about being Irish. It is also about being a woman, but we have never felt the need to excuse male artists for articulating male experience and universalising it as human or even nation-specific. Technically, there is little to fault here. Next, look at Guinness’s Two Irish Girls (1922-25). With its breezy confidence and symbolic use of an Irish cottage, it combines feeling with layers of meaning. These “femme peintres” – once dismissed as “Lhote’s wives” – were at their best when they were telling their own story, not aping the minor Frenchmen who taught them.
From here, climb the stairs to look at Jellett’s paintings of women. One of the great fascinations about Jellett is how she went from painting naked women with such feeling to producing the abstract, devotional religious work that dominated her later years. The languid, rounded, placid women in the flat landscape of her Three Graces (1921-22) are transformed into the more geometric, shimmering Bathers in 1922. It seems remarkable that both paintings date from the same hand within the same timeframe.
Take time to consider the influence of Picasso on Guinness’ small undated, Still Life with Newspaper; marvel at the almost psychological abstract tangle at the centre of Swanzy’s Peasant Woman on Pathway (c1930) and observe how she blended the old with the new, incorporating an understanding of depth, shadow and light that those learning to negotiate the flat, layered planes of Cubism so often abandoned. Admire her tropical sense of colour, pairing red with green, teal with plum and yellow with peach in Le Village (c1920). Hone took a more intuitive approach than Jellett to applying the “rules” of her teacher, but in the basement, this exhibition offers a revelatory accumulation of religious paintings that acknowledges the debt these two Irish artists owed not just to Gleizes and Lhote but to each other.
Jellett gained critical approval with her glowing Homage to Fra Angelico in 1928. Hone’s Composition in the same colour palette is less immediately persuasive, but it resonates as the more heartfelt offering. The pair’s “elements” paintings have dated the most. Driven by technical concerns, they read like an experimental dead end, dominated by hard graft and the struggle to make it work, overworked, over-thought and over-analysed.
The show claims its focus on Gleizes, Hone, Lhote and Jellett is “in recognition of the extensive influence that these artists had on modern Irish abstract painting” but it fails to provide any real evidence of their influence on their contemporaries outside the group, any real stylistic connection within the group apart from Hone and Jellett, or proof of their lasting influence on contemporary Irish art. In his catalogue essay, Sean Kissane lists “Fergus Feehily, Sinead Ni Maonaigh, Sean Scully, Richard Gorman, Feilim Egan, Paul Doran, John Noel Smith and Sean Shanahan” as having been influenced by Cubism, but there is no real suggestion that the Analysing Cubism artists had a specific influence on them. Louis le Brocquy’s traveller paintings of the 1940s were Cubist influenced, but by Picasso it would seem, not Jellett and Hone. If Analysing Cubism proves anything it is that Irish artists have tended to look abroad for inspiration and to stay abreast of modern developments, rather than to each other or their recent past.
Jellett died prematurely in 1944, as the centre of cutting-edge art was shifting from Paris to New York. She had put much of her energy into promoting, teaching and lecturing about her chosen style and it might be more accurate to argue that she prepared the way for contemporary Irish art by educating the audience, rather than directly influencing artists. As for the others, as Swanzy once put it, “If I had been born Henry instead of Mary my life would have been very different.”
Analysing Cubism: Mainie Jellett, Evie Hone, Mary Swanzy and masters of European Modernism, Irish Museum of Modern Art 20 February to 19 May 2013, The Crawford Art Gallery, Cork, 20 June to 1 September 2013 and FE McWilliam Gallery and Studio, Banbridge, Co Down, 13 September to 30 November 2013.