Sunday 17 December 2017

Freud, a magical recluse & a unique art opportunity

Art lovers are in for a feast this year with some major new shows

The Ulster Museum contracted a form of concrete cancer some time ago. The craggy, modernist overhang at the entrance, part of a major restructuring of the museum 40 years ago, and extending into parts of the roof, is made of concrete. This has succumbed to an internal process of disintegration and the remedy is a massive one, necessitating closure at least until 2009. Substantial areas are affected and already staff and objects have been moved to museum out-stations around Belfast and further afield.

This part of the building dates from the 1960s. The museum, like so many such institutions in these islands, grew out of the main public library and it was in 1890 that an art gallery was opened. The museum is multi-purpose, its art collection until recently one of six departments.

In 1961, the Northern Ireland government took over the Ulster Museum from the City Council. The architect for the new museum was Francis Pym and he won an open competition for the building judged by Sir Leslie Martin, Cambridge professor of architecture.

The museum's troubles have now provided an unprecedented and unique opportunity for Dublin to see the best of the art from Ulster. The collection is a good one, both of Irish art and continental painting. In international works it does not compare with the National Gallery's own collections; but it does have exceptional individual paintings, such as the powerful Jacob Jordaens painting of St Christopher and a Van Ost of the Holy Family.

John Lavery gave to the museum a collection of his works - a valuable endowment, making the holding much better than anything we have down here. There are a few good examples of Jack Yeats, but the emphasis has effectively been on the more modern period and has benefited from Anne Crookshank's period there and then Brian Kennedy.

There was a consistent and reasonably well-supported focus on gathering together a comprehensive cross-section of Irish art, at a time when museums and art galleries in the Republic either did not have the funding or did not have the same conviction about Irish art as did the Northern institutions.

From Thomas Bate's exquisite oval portrait on copper panel of Lord Coningsby in a landscape to the fine Edward McGuire full-length portrait of Seamus Heaney, there is a consistent excellence in what the Ulster Museum has acquired over the years. The best painting by Dan O'Neill is there, as well as good examples of Basil Blackshaw and TP Flanagan.

The show will be opened, appropriately enough, by President Mary McAleese on March 12 in the National Gallery and will run to mid-September. Eileen Black and Anne Stewart are the curators.

Georgia O'Keeffe is a magical figure in American painting. Born in 1887 in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, she studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and then went on to New York, Virginia and Columbia University. She worked as a commercial artist until 1918, when she began a process of exclusion of everything except her painting.

Lustrous and brilliant depictions of exotic flowers have been her trademark and became a form of abstraction - disturbing and haunting in their use of familiar imagery from nature, and erotic in their overwhelming power. They will feature in the show at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, opening just before the National Gallery's Ulster Museum exhibition, on March 7. She was promoted in the early 1920s by the photographer, Alfred Stieglitz, who had a gallery and took on other artists. He married her in 1924. When he died in 1946, O'Keeffe spent three years cataloguing his photographs which she then distributed to US collections. After that, she moved to live in New Mexico.

Her reclusive nature as an artist became legendary. She once said: "I know I am unreasonable about people but there are so many wonderful people I can't take the time to know." She loved dancing in her youth but said that dancing at night meant "daytime lost to painting", so she gave up dancing.

In New Mexico, she lived in an adobe house. There was no ornament; no colour. One visitor to her there said that what he noticed above all were "the strong white hands, touching and lifting everything, even the boiled eggs, as if they were living things - sensitive, slow-moving hands, coming out of the black and white, always the black and white".

In June, IMMA is putting on a Lucian Freud exhibition, some 50 paintings covering six decades of his work. He is one of the most distinguished painters of his age, his portraits powerful and uncompromising depictions of character and energy, as indeed are his monumental nudes. For a time Freud lived in Dublin. He worked closely with two artists, both now dead, Patrick Swift and Edward Maguire.

The interaction of their approach, the strange deliberate distortion of figurative material, the haunting sense of personality and of figures poised in expectation of some event, is very strong in the work of this early period around 1952. Freud himself, among many other collectors, seems to be haunted by what he achieved in the 1940s and early 1950s and works from this period are much sought-after.

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