Treasures: Looking out for a Ballagh
Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column
Traffic's slow on Kildare Street. There's a woman in the window of DeVere's auction rooms. Hands on hips, standing with her back to the street, she leans forward to peer at a Piet Mondrian painting.
She's wearing a maxi-length 1970s dress. Heads turn as people pass by the window. Art connoisseurs are an odd bunch, but climbing into a shop window to get a closer look seems a step too far.
John deVere White laughs. "We've had people coming in and doing a double-take all week." He indicates a corner of the showroom where a woman in a smart green coat surveys a Bridget Riley painting. Like the lady in the window, she's a painted cutout, almost life-size. Each cutout person is paired with the painting that she looks at - together they make an entire artwork. The paintings aren't really by Mondrian and Riley - they were painted in the 1970s by the Irish artist Robert Ballagh.
Fifteen artworks by Ballagh are coming up for sale in DeVere's Irish Art Auction, which takes place on Tuesday and almost all of them belong to his famous series People Looking At Art.
The series was inspired by the pioneering Rosc exhibition of 1967. This was the first time a substantial body of contemporary art had been shown in Ireland. The Irish viewing public was intrigued, outraged and impressed. For many, it was their first exposure to the likes of Picasso, Miro, Francis Bacon and Willem de Kooning.
Ballagh, then aged 24, had his own perspective: "At Rosc, it seemed as if art had become commodified somehow and I found that fascinating." As people looked at the paintings, he looked at the people looking at the paintings. And then he began to paint them.
It caught on. A sell-out exhibition of People Looking At Art at the adventurous David Hendricks Gallery in 1972 was followed by more of the same ilk, both in Ireland and abroad. On a theoretical level, the series of paintings represent a ground-breaking moment in Irish modernism. The paintings were funny and perceptive, meticulously painted and cleverly observed. They hauled the Irish viewing public into a realisation of the role of the viewer within the art world. But Ballagh's neo-realistic style and his sassy presentation of art as a branded commodity ruffled the feathers of traditionalists.
"I think he was ahead of his time," DeVere White comments. "He's Ireland's only serious pop artist. In the 1970s, he was looking outside the country at a time when everyone else was painting Connemara in all its colours."
The paintings in the sale have been out of the country for more than 40 years. In 1976, Ballagh drove them over to Switzerland for an exhibition at the Aktionsgalerie in Bern. Now - history doesn't quite relate how - they have migrated back to Ireland.
In the meantime, Ballagh has known success, both as an artist and a designer. His Portrait Of Dr Noel Brown (1985) is in the collection of the National Gallery in Dublin. It's famous for its cruciform shape and the way the pebbles seem to spill out the bottom of the canvas on to the gallery floor (Ballagh's paintings are often reluctant to stay on their canvases). He has also designed more than 60 stamps for An Post and all the pre-euro Irish banknotes (1992-8). In 1995, he designed the set for Riverdance.
Despite (or perhaps because of) his success, the Irish art world has tended to look down its nose at Robert Ballagh. "He's a bit anti-establishment," DeVere White explains. Ballagh is political, in the activist way that artists were meant to be political in the 1960s. He's also democratic, reproducing and selling many of his artworks as prints. Some of these are beginning to sell well at auction.
Mandela Free Man (1990), a limited edition print that would have cost around £100 when new, sold for €460 at Whyte's in 2015. Ballagh's paintings can command very high prices indeed. My Studio 1969 fetched €96,000 at Whyte's in 2004 and Girl Looking At An Andy Warhol sold for €26,000 in 2006.
There's another version of this painting in the current sale at DeVeres (est €10,000 to €15,000). The girl, modelled on the artist's daughter, stretches in front of one of Warhol's Campbell's Soup paintings, knickers on display. The 1970s were innocent times.
That same sense of innocence runs through the series of paintings. There's nothing cynical about them. It's difficult to know to the extent to which the tenderness of the portraits was intentional. It may have come about because the people in the paintings are modelled on Ballagh's family and friends. In Man And A Tom Wesselman (est €8,000 to €12,000), the figure looking at the painting is the artist Theo McNabb who died in 2015.
The woman looking at a Piet Mondrian is Ballagh's wife. The woman looking at a Bridget Riley is his mother. In Two People And A David Hockney (€2,000 to €4,000), the artist slouches at the edge of the canvas, in high heels and a 1970s suit, while Michael Farrell's young son, Seamus Farrell, points up at a detail in the picture.
As an insight into the perceptions and reactions of the Irish viewing public in the 1970s, it's a kindly one.
DeVere's Irish Art Auction will be on display at the Royal Hibernian Academy, Ely Place, Dublin 2, from tomorrow until Tuesday. The auction takes place on Tuesday at 6pm. See deveres.ie.
In the salerooms
Dolan's Limerick Art Auction will take place on Sunday at Castletroy Park Hotel, Limerick, starting at 2pm. The sale is mainly focused on painting, with several works by Carina Scott and others by Kenneth Webb, Maurice Wilks, Arthur Armstrong and Henry Morgan. There's an unusual window-sill scene, 'View From A Window, Winter Garden' (below), by Kathleen Fox (1880 - 1963) (est €1,400 to €1,800).
Fox was an interesting woman and an artist of some reputation. She studied at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art under William Orpen and, for a period, acted as his assistant. She travelled and exhibited widely and is best known for still life, such as this one, and for her paintings of the Easter Rising, including that of Countess Markievicz surrendering outside the College of Surgeons. Expect also furniture, Irish silver, books and collectibles, ranging from valuable antiques to an assortment of toy trains from the 'Thomas The Tank Engine' series (est €10 to €20). See dolansart.com.
When artists create tapestries, the actual making of the piece is usually delegated to a skilled craftsperson or artisan manufacturer.
Not so Gerard Dillon (1916-1971), who thought he'd give it a lash himself. The art historian James White describes how: "Most modern painters and tapestry designers send their cartoons to the great tapestry factories to be woven there, but Gerard started his own in Roundstone, at a time when he ran out of painting materials and perhaps adequate cash; obtaining a large canvas base and able to acquire wool ends in different colours locally, he set out to master the handcraft practised in cottages around the world for many hundreds of year."
Dillon's tapestries are rare but one, 'Hands Across The Border' (est €5,000 to €7,000), is coming up for sale in Whyte's forthcoming auction of Important Irish Art. It's energetic, vibrant and slightly clumsy.
The sale also includes several pieces by Tony O'Malley, including a Gobelin style woven tapestry, 'Callan Landscape, Three Aspects, 1983' (est €5,000 to €7,000). The auction takes place on Monday, November 28 at 6pm, with full details on whytes.ie.
ANTIQUES & COLLECTOR'S FAIRS
For those in search of Christmas collectibles, there's a new event coming up this Sunday when the first Tipperary Antiques Art & Vintage Fair will take place at Cahir House Hotel, with more than 30 stands.
It will be followed on Sunday, November 27 with the slightly smaller Clare Antiques Art & Vintage Fair at the Lakeside Hotel, Killaloe. See hibernianantiquefairs.com.
There will also be a wide range of contemporary collectibles at the 25th Anniversary City Hall Crafts and Design Fair, which takes place at the City Hall, Cork, from Thursday to Sunday, November 24-27, see cityhallcraftsfair.ie.
The Dublin Designer Market, based in the Bank of Ireland forecourt on College Green, runs on Friday and Saturday, December 9-10, with all the stallholders' fees going directly to the Society of St Vincent De Paul.