Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Introductory Essay: Writing Irish Art Histories

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Introductory Essay: Writing Irish Art Histories

Article excerpt

At the time of writing (September 2013), the gallery at the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) on Dublin's Thomas Street is holding an exhibition titled 'more adventurous thinking...' This takes the form of artist Seamus Nolan's response to the archive of art writer and cultural commentator Dorothy Walker (1929 - 2002), which became part of NIVAL (the National Irish Visual Arts Library at NCAD) in 2004. Nolan contacted prominent art collectors and institutions and invited them to consider the suitability of the relatively new gallery space at the art college for particular works of art.1 The art works specified were those that had been included in Walker's 1997 publication, Modern Art in Ireland, seen by many as a key text in the historiography of modem Irish painting. The gallery itself was measured and assessed in terms of its temperature, humidity and the UV light levels.2 This exhibition marks and explores Walker's legacy, as well as the shifts in value, both in canonical and monetary terms, of these art works from the time that Modern Art in Ireland was first published, through the years of the economic boom, to the present precarious moment. It also acts as a test track for our current models of art history - the receptacles and hanging spaces, the tools and the words - allowing us to ask whether they are still fit for purpose sixteen years later, to kick the tyres and knock on the walls. It is almost indisputable to say that Walker's book has a formative and important place in the development of the historiography of Irish art, and it is fitting that her achievement should be acknowledged and celebrated. Nolan's intervention, however, also reveals a reflective, reflexive tum in practices of writing and thinking about Irish art - a desire to assess the directions of art historical enquiry and scholarship, to critically question the terms of the discipline as it has developed, and to begin to imagine and to investigate the critical landscape of the future.3 It is in this context that this group of essays has been gathered. They each address various moments in the construction of the discipline of Irish art history, excavating the palimpsest of texts, actions, exhibitions, judgements and statements which have formed at different times around the works of art themselves, and which contribute to the texture of our understanding in different ways.4

In many ways, Irish art history is a fledgling field of enquiry, its youth creating both challenges and opportunities for its practitioners.5 On one level, the work of recovery is underway - gathering information, collecting images, creating archives, identifying artists and tracking down their work and its provenance. This work is carried out at the same time as the definition of the discipline and its terms.6 What is meant by 'Irish' art, and what is Irish art history? Does it involve both research on 'Irish artists' (whoever they are) and research done in Ireland on the art of elsewhere? Does it include the study of non-Irish artists residing in Ireland, as well as artists of Irish birth, descent, affiliation or self-identification making art elsewhere in the world? Does it include work by Irish historians abroad, and research on the art of Ireland carried out outside the country? And what about the various ways in which artists from 'elsewhere' have engaged, or disengaged, with artists from 'here'? The answer, I would suggest, is all of the above. These various strands of discourse materially inform each other in a continual way, an example of the density of intertextuality as explored by Julia Kristeva, as well as Michel Foucault's explication of the 'residual existence' of all texts and statements; the ways in which texts, or statements, must be considered in terms of the 'relations between statements (even if the author is unaware of them; even if the statements do not have the same author; even if the authors are unaware of each other's existence); relations between groups of statements thus established (even if these groups do not share the same, or even adjacent, fields; even if they do not possess the same formal level; even if they are not the locus of assignable exchanges); relations between statements and groups of statements of a quite different kind (technical, economic, social, political). …

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