Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Sunday 8 December 2019

Time to celebrate our art

Sophie Gorman

Did you know that the Oscar statuettes were designed by a Dubliner? Yes, those golden figures presented at the Academy Awards were created by one Cedric Gibbons, who created those iconic figures when he was 35 and working in Hollywood. Production designer Gibbons was one of the original founding members of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and was nominated for one of his own trophies 39 times, winning 11 of them.

Did you know that a Kilkenny man designed the White House? James Hoban was born and reared near Callan, County Kilkenny. He started his career there as a carpenter until he moved to Dublin to study drawing and then in 1785 he moved to Philadelphia and established himself as an architect.

Did you know that the white dress worn by Jackie Kennedy in her famous White House portrait was designed by Irish designer Sybil Connolly? Connolly and her designs broke into American consciousness in 1953, when the cover of Life magazine featured one of her crochet dresses and her full-length red cape.

Did you know that the most expensive chair ever sold was designed by Eileen Gray from Enniscorthy? The Dragon Chair was once the property of Yves St Laurent and fetched £19 million sterling when it sold at auction in 2009.

Do you know why Brian Cronin is one of Ireland's most celebrated artistic exports? He designs covers for Time magazine and Penguin Classics.

Yes, we know that we Irish are writers, we punch well above our weight globally in this field - it is at our cultural heart, the gift of the gab. But what we perhaps don't realise, and certainly don't celebrate enough, is that we also contribute more than our fair share to the visual art world. At least part of the reason this is often ignored is that many of our most famous artists, like Francis Bacon and William Orpen, were forced to emigrate. Also there is the fact that while we can all read Beckett and Joyce, or download Seamus Heaney poems or a podcast of a Sean O'Casey play, we can't all personally see the paintings or buildings or wear the dresses.

James Hoban
James Hoban

Now a giant five-volume book produced by the Royal Irish Academy (ria.ie), Art and Architecture of Ireland, looks at 1600 years of history in Ireland's visual arts and architecture. It is fascinating, at times astonishing, engaging and, quite simply, immense. The publication was five years in the making and brings together over 250 contributors from around the world. This could very likely be the most important art book ever produced in Ireland.

The five different volumes are Medieval, Painting, Sculpture, Architecture and Twentieth Century. "We have always been playing second fiddle to our writers, but it is time that art history grew up as a discipline and took control of its own field," says art historian Catherine Marshall, one of the two editors for the Twentieth Century volume.

Catherine came on board in January 2009, when the project had already been up and running for a few months. She and co-editor Peter Murray worked on it on it full time for four years, submitting the text finally in 2013. The last year has been tidying it up. "They are huge. I can't lift the five volumes together.

"Each of the five volumes had at least three members on an advisory board. There was also an umbrella group and we had a number of meetings for the entire editorial team plus advisors at least twice a year to make sure we were all progressing in the right direction."

Hard copies of all of the five volumes are now being distributed to libraries in every county, north and south. And there is also a plan to distribute it digitally to every second level school next spring.

The Twentieth Century volume deals with the influx of pop culture and new media. It also addresses the truth that so many people in Ireland are not engaged with our own arts and feel that art is somehow for other people.

"We are trying to make this accessible and inclusive. We do have essays on fine art, but we also have essays on pop art. We have an essay, for instance, on Jim Fitzpatrick who created the iconic Che Guevera image, the most famous portrait in the world in the 20th Century, and Jim Fitzpatrick didn't even copyright it, he felt that it was right to put it out free in the world."

I think this will be the first great history of Irish art, but sadly also the last as with new technology and new focuses, I can't see anyone taking such time to create anything quite of this scale again.

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