Modernist criticism via Anglo-American channels came to the fore in writing on Irish art in the 1960s and 1970s. It offered an alternative to the deployment of nationalist rhetoric in assessing the value of visual art to Irish cultural life which had been dominant since independence in 1922. The use of a Modernist approach came from wider economic and linguistic factors and above all from the provincial attitude of the art establishment which sought validation from New York or London. This paper focuses on one of the most influential and contentious essays on post-war Irish art, the catalogue text of the 1971 exhibition the Irish Imagination 195971. It considers how modem Irish art was presented in this text and how this presentation related to the priorities of the art establishment in the Republic of Ireland in the early 1970s. Coming at a crucial moment in the escalation of violence in Northern Ireland and the demise of Modernism internationally, the essay encapsulates many of the contradictions of its time.
The years leading up to the Irish Imagination exhibition were pivotal ones for the display and production of art in the Republic of Ireland. Disputes over the National College of Art by students protesting against its outdated curriculum and administration in conjunction with the partisan collecting policies of the Arts Council at the end of the 1960s highlighted the contentious position of visual art in contemporary Irish culture.1 The former put visual art at the forefront of the media and the prolonged debate concerning the National College of Art and Design bill in the Dáil and Senate in 1971 brought Irish visual art into a new critical focus. In addition to this the period saw the disintegration of civil law in Northern Ireland and the stability of the Republic appeared to be severely under threat.
Sponsored by the Arts Council of Ireland, the Irish Imagination 1959-71 exhibition was one of a number of satellite exhibitions held as part of Rose 71. Rose was an international exhibition held in Dublin every four years, the first in 1967. A jury of three international critics selected fifty contemporary artists, whose work 'appealed aesthetically to their three individual tastes'.2 Rose, an Irish word meaning 'poetry of vision', was chosen because it was short and easily pronounceable in English. 3It also evoked a universal and timeless idea of art that was in keeping with the rationale of the exhibition. No Irish artists were selected for the main Rose '67 or Rose '71.
Rose was clearly intended to put the Republic of Ireland on the international culture map. It was closely connected with the tourist industry. The Honorary President of Rose, Minister for Finance, Charles Haughey, revealed the state's recognition of the propagandist values of the venture when he noted that for a 'tourist country it was important to be identified with the best in contemporary culture'.4 The visitor potential of Rose was reflected in its sponsors, which included Aer Lingus, Bórd Fáilte (the Irish tourist board), and CIE (the national public transport company).
The Irish Imagination exhibition allowed the official participation of Irish artists at Rose, albeit in a subsidiary exhibition. It was therefore an important vehicle for promoting contemporary Irish visual art in what was envisaged to be an international forum. The show was held at the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modem Art, Dublin and offered an idiosyncratic view of modem Irish art, featuring 136 paintings by over 20 contemporary Irish artists. Subsequently it travelled to Boston, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia. The timeframe of the exhibition, 19591971, emphasised the significance of contemporary Irish art and cultural life. 1959 marked the beginning of a concerted interest in acquiring and promoting visual art by the Arts Council of Ireland and coincidentally the election of Sean Lemass as Taoiseach.5 Lemass's government had pursued progressive economic policies that contributed to a dramatically positive shift in Irish economic as well as social life in the 1960s. …