Muriel Brandt, The Breadline 1916 (1950) at the Crawford Gallery in Cork, February 2016

Muriel Brandt, The Breadline 1916 (1950) at the Crawford Gallery in Cork, February 2016

Bread: such a potent symbol of community, domesticity, comfort, of home; such a practical source of nourishment. It might seem like an unlikely vehicle for all that an artist wants to say about the 1916 Easter Rising, but Muriel Brandt knew its potential as a metaphor. Bread, or more specifically the lack of it in the immediate aftermath of the rebellion, is the kick-off point for her startlingly persuasive c.1950 painting, The Breadline 1916.

Brandt (1909-1981) was a renowned painter of children, but she also produced densely packed group compositions and this painting, now in the Crawford Gallery Collection, is typical of her street scene style. Her rural group compositions often had a romantic, nostalgic air, her crowded shop scenes tended towards caricature, but The Breadline 1916 is a more serious painting. Busy, but still. Full, but calmly organised, with a palpable under-layer of barely concealed anxiety.img_6458

During the six day insurrection, no fresh food entered Dublin city centre. Without reserves to draw on, the already impoverished tenement residents of the capital suffered. In a city of 300,000 people, around 2,500 rebels fought, but of the 590 casualties, 374 were civilians, including at least 38 children. There were mixed feelings about the Rising among the general population. Many Dubliners had family members in the British army. Most of the fighting took place in densely populated areas. Jacob’s biscuit factory and Boland’s Mills and Bakery were among the first buildings occupied, and when there’s no bread, it’s the children who suffer first.

Belfast-born Brandt spent most of her life in Dublin. A portrait painter and prolific contributor to the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA), she served on the board of the National Gallery of Ireland as an RHA representative. Her 1916 painting is a little-known, but key part of her legacy.

img_6463It shows the near total infrastructural devastation of the area, but focuses on women and children queueing for bread on Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, as it is handed out by the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, who ran a laundry nearby. Brandt’s intelligent use of colour is a key tool for navigating the image. Burnt reds link figures at the top of the queue to the upholstery of the abandoned furniture on the street, drawing the eye to the children sitting on the burnt-out car chassis and the peach-coloured shoulder of the baby, whose face is the most finished element of the whole composition. It is this baby who looks, androgynously, out at the viewer with a silent accusation, a knowing resignation and a necessary helplessness, all the while offering a picture of inherent resilience that says, “I am the future. All of this is for me”.

Rusty reds symbolise the blood of martyrs, their orange tinge an emblem of endurance and strength. The blue of the nun’s dresses stands for hope and health, and there is green, the colour of life, growth and freedom, in the shawl of the young girl holding the baby. This girl, dark haired and green-eyed, is surely young Ireland, holding the future in her hands. Tears brim in her eyes as she stares into the middle distance. We now know that two two-year-olds were shot dead during the Rising, one killed in her mother’s arms, the other as he was pushed along in his pram.

Brandt’s inclusion of the nuns allows the bread to be read as a Christian symbol: standing for sacrifice and martyrdom, in the form of Christ’s body. Her painting is cutesy, on one level – most of the children are fairly chipper, if cautious-looking – but the words heroic and inspirational take on new meaning in her image. It’s also a painting about family: the two boys at the front wearing caps are a reminder of the insidious nature of a battle that saw Irishmen firing on Irishmen, as British army recruits faced the rebel nationalists.img_6464

The Breadline 1916 is a heroic painting without the traditional heart and mind-stirring visual triggers of heroism. There are no guns (except those of the casual-looking British soldiers encircling Nelson’s Pillar behind), no stoically handsome chiselled male jaws (as in Sean Keating’s 1915 Men of the West) and no men marching bravely towards the viewer (as in Jack B Yeats 1946 Men of Destiny). In fact, a significant number of the figures have their backs or shoulders turned to the viewer. The nuns are anonymous, their faces hidden by starched butterfly wimples. The women are a huddled, flat-lipped crowd, a congregation of witnesses. The children are bit players in a scene, all except the girl with the green-shawl-wrapped baby. At the centre of it all, the bread.

Brandt’s is a quietly insistent history painting without the bombast or histrionics of one. The apparent initial failure of the Rising, how it was viewed in the aftermath, the ultimate mythologizing of those who took part and the symbolism of the whole event: all of this is up for discussion here, just thirty four years on. She paints unsung heroes as the perhaps necessary and inevitable collateral damage, while asking us to question that.

img_6461A great painting can still tell us something worthwhile half a century after it was painted. Here is a moment after the fighting, amidst the ruins, but before the execution of the leaders: the act that shifted public sentiment and galvanised future attitudes towards their actions. It ensured martyrdom. In 1950, Brandt is aware of it, and the complex symbolism of the bread, but the figures in her painting are not, yet.

A version of this article was published in The Sunday Times Ireland on 17 March 2016. The Breadline 1916 (oil on board, c.1950) is part of the Crawford Gallery of Art Collection in Cork.

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