IAAH BLOG 7 JUNE 2021

Exchange and collision: Paul Henry’s Turf stack in bog and Richard Long’s Kilkenny Limestone Circle (i)

Fernando Sánchez-Migallón Cano

The Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) opened on 25 May 1991 with an inaugural sequence of exhibitions and projects entitled Inheritance and Transformation. The suite of exhibitions was distributed across the Royal Hospital Kilmainham (RHK), including its courtyard and adjacent grounds showing the work of nearly one hundred multigenerational artists. This emphasized the spatial variety and complexity of the new museum’s spaces, and a significant artistic diversity, aiming to address the “past, present and future in one institution”. (ii) The exhibitions also conveyed what was to appear again and again as the museum’s programming philosophy: the presentation of unexpected juxtapositions of works, creating new contexts and questioning traditional museological representations.

Upon entering the main exhibition space in the upper floor of RHK’s building, the visitors encountered one of those unexpected juxtapositions. Displayed together, the first two artworks that the visitors encountered back then were Paul Henry’s (1877 – 1958) Turf stack in the bog (1927) and Richard Long’s (b. 1945) Kilkenny Limestone (1991). With little curatorial mediation other that the individual object labels and no information panel, the viewers were invited to negotiate the meaning of these particular artworks and their grouping together in their own terms rather than feed on the curator’s view. The aim of this curatorial approach was to challenge traditional museological models and the relationship between artwork and viewer whereby the “viewer was explicitly invited to become more of a participant than a consumer in the negotiation of meaning in art”. (iii) Regardless of these claims of decontextualization, the curators relied on cultural capital acquired in the past by the viewer in order to communicate the curatorial message: landscape, form, national identity, traditional, contemporary, and the space of the museum.

Henry and Long’s works are linked by landscape as subject. For Long, however, landscape determines subject, material and creative process, and his art is created as the essence of his experience rather than a representation of it, while Henry created art to “describe” or represent the experience. Beyond the subject matter of landscape, this curatorial moment also embodied other contrasting arguments. The relationship between past and present, both pieces from different eras presented in a curatorial ‘ahistorical’ context. The notion of Irish and other identities, Henry a ‘quintessential’ Irish painter contrasted with Long, a British artist with very close bonds to Ireland. Tradition and innovation through the contrast of the opposite formal approaches, painting versus installation art. (iv)

This compare-and-contrast approach created a sense of tension, and (using Declan McGonagle’s adjective) “collision” which were present throughout the exhibition, and according to Declan McGonagle, IMMA Director between 1991 and 2001, and curator of Inheritance and Transformation, also echoed the changing Irish society of the 1990s. (v) This is what sociologists Carmen Kuhling and Kieran Keohane have identified as a ‘collision’ culture. According to them, these cultural collisions in Irish life occur between the local and global, between traditional and modern, between Catholic and secular, and between rural and urban. (vi) McGonagle indicates that certainly it is impossible for a national public institution to ignore the collision of old and new stories, and its old and new communities. McGonagle also indicates that Inheritance and Transformation reflected that sense of collision, and of the various challenges which had to be negotiated in Irish society. Within the curatorial message of Inheritance and Transformation, there was also an apparent reference to the historical identity of the RHK and its transformation into a contemporary art space. But there was also a reference to the transformation of inherited ideas about the nature and purpose of art and its relationship to its recent past. (vii)

McGonagle, has also referred to the juxtaposition of Henry and Long’s pieces as a key moment not only in encompassing the overall curatorial message of Inheritance and Transformation but also of IMMA as a new institution of modern art. (viii) Long’s artwork was one the first commissioned pieces that entered IMMA’s permanent collection, while Henry’s piece was part of the Hooker O’Malley collection, one of the private donations to the collection. Since its establishment, IMMA’s Collection has been firmly rooted to the present and significant contemporary works are added each year. While their collection of modern art, which has a particular emphasis on work from the 1940s onwards, is regularly made up of donations or loans.

Being the first experience offered to the visitors before proceeding to other parts of the exhibition, according to McGonagle, the paring of Henry and Long’s artworks “was intended to set the scene for a process of dialogue rather than presentation of a fixed view, thus serving as a marker for the core purpose of the museum.” (ix) The ‘core purpose of the museum’ that McGonagle refers to is his original vision of a museological model that challenged the old, canonical idea of the museum, and the creation of a new museum where there was no longer a single governing narrative in art history or practice and where pre-determined art historical and institutional boundaries are not accepted. The canonical ideas of the museum that McGonagle refers to is the model of museum from the early 19th century which has been centred on the agency of the artist and to autonomy of the art object: “This model provides for what art is”. The shift that he envisioned was about “providing for what art does, embedded in, rather than separated form, social space and social process.” (x) A space for exchange and collision.  

Endnotes

i: The label for the exhibition refers to Paul Henry’s painting as Turf stack in the bog. However, the painting is commonly known as Connemara Landscape.

ii: A. Dunne, “The IMMA Decade”, World of Hibernia, 7, no. 1 (2001).

iii, v, vi, vii, ix, x: D. McGonagle, “For Them, Not Us: “Turning” the Museum in an Anxious World”,  Éire-Ireland, Volume 52, Numbers 3 & 4, Fall/Winter 2017.

iv, viii: D. McGonagle, “New Negotiations: A role for Art and Institutions Within Society”, in Myth, Memories and Futures: The National Library and National Museum in the Story of Wales, ed. J. Osmond (Cardiff: Institute of Wales Affairs, 2007).

Image

Richard Long, Kilkenny Limestone Circle (1991), and Paul Henry, Connemara Landscape (1927), oil on canvas. Collection Irish Museum of Modern Art. Exhibition installation IMMA, 1991.

Biography

Fernando Sánchez-Migallón Cano received his BA in Art History and Archaeology from University College Dublin. He completed his PhD, titled ‘The power of display: exhibition culture and exhibited culture in Ireland 1973 – 1991’, through the School of History and Humanities, Trinity College Dublin in 2020. His major field of research is contemporary art history and its application to museum studies focusing on the socio-cultural impact of exhibition making.

* As part of IMMA’s 30th birthday programme, Henry and Long’s works have been reunited in a restaging of this curatorial moment at the exhibition project: The Narrow Gate of the Here-and-Now, IMMA: 30 Years of the Global Contemporary. For more details and to book your ticket please visit IMMA’s website here.

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