11 November 2010

Modern life is rubbish

A few weeks ago I dropped into the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Kilmainham, to see the start of 'The Moderns', their new exhibition that looks at all maner of visual arts in Ireland between 1900 and 1975. That is a very long period to cover, and I think as a result of this the quality and strength of the exhibition seemed a bit inconsistant to me. The exhibit can be roughly divided into pre-1960's and 60's-70's, and while there were many interesting pieces in both sections each left me with a taste of sadness in my mouth.

While there was an impressive array of Yeats, an interesting piece by Kenneth Hall and two large Kernoffs (including an amazing scene of Balscadden Road in Howth) that I haven't seen before, I was struck by the lack of originality that encompassed most of the pre-60's works. There were examples of impressionist, cubist and other movements of the early 20th Century, but the overall sense was that these were by artists attempting to create something in a particular style they had seen elsewhere, and often many years after the movement itself had dissipated on the continent. There was seldom a sense that the artists were participating in and contributing to the movement they were emulating, rather they were external observers trying to recreate something they had once witnessed.

The 60's-70s collection definitely contained more works that displayed their own unique character, but almost none left a lasting impression on me, and for this I can blame not the pieces themselves, but the Arts Block in Trinity College. Built between 1968 and 1979, the (then) contemporary art selected for its interior seemed to be chosen based on its price per square foot rather than on its artistic merit, and used mainly as wallpaper to cover the vast concrete expanses of the ground and first floors. Walking through the 60's-70s collection in 'The Moderns' was a flashback to many a cup of tea between lectures, sitting around on the carpet-covered "chocolate boxes" in the Arts Block, and in a wood-for-the-trees moment I found myself unable to view many of the IMMA pieces by the same artists as in the Arts Block as anything other than background decoration. Ironically my constant exposure to such art at a formative age had completely desensitized me to it.

Either that or the works really are just meh.

Overall I was left feeling that as a nation we really are a small windswept island on the periphery of Europe and, with a few notable exceptions, what passes for creativity here are merely shadows of greater ideas that happen elsewhere, new to Ireland but not new to the world. But this does not mean that I didn't like the Moderns exhibit, far from it, for accompanying the paintings and sculpture are an amazing collection of photographs (including portraits and landscapes of the rural West by Synge that seem ripped from the stage notes of his plays, and a fascinating series of studio experiments by GB Shaw, shown above), music, film, architectural designs, and furniture that come together to show exactly how far we as a nation have come in a hundred years, and the route we took to get here.

We may still be at the periphery of Europe, but we are closer to its shores now than at any time in our past.

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