Naked Truth: The Nude in Irish Art

Posted on: 2nd July, 2018

Category: Arts & Entertainment

Contributor: West Cork People

Elizabeth Cope ‘Giraffe Man’ (2006).

Crawford Art Gallery is delighted to present a major exhibition ‘Naked Truth: The Nude in Irish Art’ 13 July – 29 October, 2018. From mediaeval Sheela-na-gigs to the contemporary art of Dorothy Cross, the exhibition surveys the neglected subject of the rich tradition of the portrayal of the nude in Irish visual art. Focusing on the interconnecting discourses of political allegory, gender, sexuality, censorship and display, the exhibition features over forty artists including Francis Bacon, James Barry, Pauline Bewick, Amanda Coogan, Mainie Jellett, Dragana Jurisic, Alice Maher, William Orpen, Kathy Prendergast, Robert Ballagh, Sarah Purser, Nigel Rolfe and William Willes.

Curated by William Laffan and Dawn Williams the exhibition asserts the existence of a rich history of the depiction and necessity of utilising the nude and the unclothed body in the work and practice of Irish artists. The exhibition will feature over 80 works from public, collections including TATE, National Gallery of Ireland, Irish Museum of Modern Art and the Ulster Museum alongside artworks from artist’s and private collections.

In recent times, the discussion of the Irish nude as subject matter has been said by some commentators, as not to exist, or at the very least to be an invention of the late 1970s. As recently as 2010, the artist Mick O’Dea could write: ‘Even fundamentalist cultures have produced more nudes that we have’. Catherine Marshall would write in 2016 that ‘despite a few paintings, such as Barrie Cooke’s Sheela-na-gigs, there was no established genre of the nude in this country until Micheal Farrell’s ‘Madonna Irlanda’ in 1977’.

There has, in fact, been a long tradition of Irish artists painting the nude, with distinguished contributions to the genre by, among many others, James Barry, Hugh Douglas Hamilton, Margaret Clarke, Roderic O’Conor and Mainie Jellet. Indeed, there were enough Irish artists engaging actively with the subject matter to lend a helping hand to the artistic tradition of our neighbouring island. The catalogue of the exhibition ‘Exposed: The Victorian Nude’ (Tate, 2001) put forward as evidence for the emergence of a distinctly English nude works by Irish artists including, ironically, Daniel Maclise ‘Origins of the Harp’ and, in particular, the art of William Orpen and William Mulready, noting of the latter that ‘the Irishman came to be regarded as the modern master of the English nude’.

Acknowledging the large number of artists who have engaged fruitfully with the nude is not to deny that, at times, the Irish have had a problematic relationship with the corporeal and that, inevitably, this has impacted on artistic production. When the provision of an art school in Cork was being discussed in 1818, one of the suggested benefits was that young artists would not have to travel to London to study where they would be faced with ‘drawing from living models, before the morals are matured’. The denial of a tradition of the Irish nude is usually, if implicitly, linked to the prominence of the Catholic church forgetting that some of the greatest nudes in Western art such as Velázquez’s ‘Rokeby Venus’ and Goya’s ‘Nude Maya’ were produced by Spanish artists with the Inquisition rather than Archbishop McQuaid (1895-1973) to contend with.

This is not, however, to say that the display of the nude in twentieth century Ireland was not uncontentious – the subject has, for example, traditionally formed a small (though not entirely negligible) proportion of the RHA Annual Exhibition exhibits. The first exhibition of the Irish Nude, a modest, rather tentative show of just fourteen works, was held as part of Rosc ’71 and included works by Patrick Collins, Colin Middleton and George Campbell and one woman artist, Camille Souter. In an accompanying text tellingly entitled ‘The Puritan Nude’, Brian O’Doherty posited a defensive relationship between Irish artists and the subject arguing that artists including Louis Le Brocquy and Patrick Collins ‘poeticise indistinctness’ meaning that ‘the subject is ‘touched, summoned, and then avoided by partially loosing it in an environmental veil’.

Of course, there were artists painting the nude at exactly this period who certainly did not adopt indirect as O’Doherty terms ‘strategies of avoidance’. Irish artists have used the nude and unclothed body to explore a large number of themes, from the personal to political, from sexuality to display. The upturn of the perceived ‘natural’ order of men being artists and women being models, mistresses and wives, is illustrated in some of the most exciting changes in the presentation of the female nude having been introduced by women and the exhibition features work by formidable artists including Dorothy Cross, Amanda Coogan, Sarah Purser and Megan Eustace.

With the commercial ideal body of the 21st century at odds with the works being produced by artists created to confront today’s attitudes and anxieties, the naked and the nude is still a relevant and divisive subject matter in contemporary society.

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