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Toward a history of the Irish landscape: an exhibition at Boston College.

VERA KREILKAMP, Editor Eire/Land Boston College. Distributed by University of Chicago Press, 2003, $45.00

IRELAND CULMINATES IN THE WEST. There may be a negative and a positive reason for this: negative, in that the west is farthest from England; and positive, in that the west is closest to the ultimate, sublime emptiness of the Atlantic horizon. Until the days of Christopher Columbus, the Atlantic fringe of Europe was literally the end of the world, like the capes called "Finis terrae" in Galicia and Brittany. Ireland presented a passage ground to the emptiness beyond the Cliffs of Moher, and Ireland is therefore a country that is most itself in its most marginal, westernmost parts. It was like that for English and European travelers from the eighteenth century onwards, and has become a self-image for the Irish themselves, who have long lived with the idea that from their country "the next parish is Boston."

It is in Boston that the McMullen Museum of Art has hosted an exhibition (February 1-May 19, 2003), titled Eire/Land, on ways of looking at the Irish landscape. The principal organizers, Curator Alston Conley, catalogue editor Vera Kreilkamp, and museum director Nancy Netzer, associated with the Irish Studies Program at Boston College, drew on deep and long-standing links between the Irish West Coast and the American East Coast--links which.have made Boston the largest Irish city and which have made Ireland the most Americanized member-state of the European Union.

This remarkable exhibition presented a curious combination of traditional and unusual features. The topic--how a country has been looked at over the centuries, and how pictorial representation has followed, and indeed helped to shape, processes of subjugation and recovered identity--follows recent preoccupations with the power politics of visual culture. We have in recent decades been told, time and again, of "images" of the other, of "how one sees the other," of eyes-of-beholders, gazes-of-onlookers, and scopic regimes. By now there seems to be precious little middle ground between blindness and voyeurism.

But Eire/Land is different. It goes well beyond the current vogue for nineteenth-century art pompier exhibitions, where glorious kitsch is the substance of the show and the whipping-post of the theory-clever and politically correct catalogues. In highly popular exhibitions, like the Tate's Exposed: The Victorian Nude or the Berlin Museum's Mythen der Nationen, the audience would joyously flock to the schlock and accept the piously deconstructive commentaries in the catalogues as part of the deal, on a "yeah, whatever" basis. Eire/Land offers little scope for this. To be sure, the taste for politically justified high-gloss dross is catered for, by pieces like Robert G. Kelly's melodramatic eviction scene (1848)--but this is merely one of the many facets that the exhibition addresses. The catalogue--with color plates of more than a hundred works and with essays by members of Boston College's Irish Studies faculty and guests from the National Gallery of Ireland, the British Library, Brown University and Cardiff University--is a thoughtful reflection on its subject, historically informed and informative, and eschews facile theorizing-by-numbers; the range of material goes from the medieval to the contemporary. Its emphasis for nineteenth-century representations is, quite rightly, on the remarkable multitalent of George Petrie, archaeologist, music collector and watercolor artist; but it is at the far ends of its historical are that Eire/Land presents its most fascinating materials.

Among the opening gems is a medieval manuscript, on loan from the British Library, of Giraldus Cambrensis' notoriously biased description of Ireland. While Cambrensis' text is an obvious historical starting point (his description is famous as the very fountainhead of supercilious English representations of Ireland), the manuscript itself is a glorious surprise, with exquisite marginal illustrations bridging the gap between the verbal description and gambolling pictorial visualization. This intermedial aspect is followed up by the inclusion of some highly interesting maps, showing that the various modes for "representing" the Irish landscape moved between very different genres, which prove to have fascinating links, overlaps and common concerns.

At the other end of the historical survey, there are the contemporary landscape paintings. By 1900, Ireland had become one of the most intensely "beheld" countries in Europe, a country obsessed with its perception of itself then as it still is today. In his Ulysses, James Joyce chose the "cracked looking-glass of a servant" as the metaphor for Ireland's self-estranged attempts to "see itself as others see us." Outsiders had approached Ireland in quest of the sublime, the picturesque, the grotesque, the idyllic, the humorous, or indeed any striking form of the unusual, at the end of which, the country found itself incapable of looking at itself with clear and un-addled eyes. The Irish material gathered here shows how generations of Irish landscape artists have struggled with the dilemma of either having to buy into a Victorian heritage or else work within the margins of its rejection. Eire/Land features overwhelmingly lovely Jack B. Yeats sketchbooks, rarely shown, as well as some unsettling, moving attempts by Sean Keating to create an Irish modernism (with echoes of socialist realism) from rustic and traditional themes. On the whole, the landscapes from the twenties and the thirties appear as attempts to capture a new neutrality in looking at a countryside that was politically independent but pictorially still part of the imperial idyll. The Irish mid-century is habitually decried nowadays for being stuffy and oppressive; but it was the time when poet Patrick Kavanagh was attempting to "wallow in the habitual," to liberate Irishness from its English-imposed burden of being so relentlessly interesting, and it may yet prove to be one of the most challenging periods in Irish art. That, at least, is what the Prozac-like matter-of-factness of Charles Lamb and Paul Henry suggests.

The contemporary end of the exhibition shows a curious bifurcation, this time between the Irish artists and the Irish-American ones. Both still look to the Irish west as a locus of inspiration; sometimes in vast, sublime and overwhelming canvasses emulating the roar of Atlantic surf on granite cliffs, sometimes in still, meditative contemplations of seaweed, rock pools and minimalist horizons. What is striking, however, is that by and large the American artists are closest to that detachment implied in Yeats's exhortation to "cast a cold eye." For them, looking at Ireland is at last an innocent and burden-free act; they share no historical guilt or recrimination and can engage in a purely appreciative visuality, concentrating on the shape of things, the patterns of rocks, lichen and seaweed, and the clarity or opaqueness of Ireland's most priceless treasure--its light.

If for no other reason, Eire/Land would be a landmark in presenting a generation of Irish-inspired American landscape artists of great accomplishment and vision. Susan Shatter, Jane Goldman, Wendy Prellwitz, Cynthia Back and Catherine Kernan have a radiance and visual penetration that constitute an artistic delight in this exhibition, quite distinct from, and a welcome counter-balance to, the historical interest of the earlier material.

This purity of vision, best expressed, perhaps, by Cynthia Knott's achingly fragile horizons, is shared by some Irish ones like Deirdre O'Mahony and Jane Procter, and it compares favorably with the preoccupations of other Irish artists, who, going by the material presented here, seem to favor a more anecdotal approach to the western landscape, using its visual presence for argumentative, historical purposes. For Kathy Herbert or Dorothy Cross, the landscape is the locus of expropriation, emigration, and loss, and they take nothing at face value. If the Irish west is a landscape of absences rather than emptiness, how does the artist render this visible? The answers offered here (Hiroshima-like shades on crumbling cottage walls; discarded shoes aligned before a photographic array of more empty cottages; a video of yet another cottage scene, featuring a growing black spot gradually obliterating the screen) are earnest rather than subtle or inventive.

Remarkably, traditional Irish dance and music have in recent year been reinvigorated by the return of second- or third-generation American-Irish artists. For them, the story of emigration and departure has been resolved and continued on the further shore of the Atlantic, well to the west of the Irish west. If Eire/Land is anything to go by, the visual arts could profit in a similar way from a trans-western, Irish-American tradition, for whom the coastline of Connemara and Mayo is not the end of the world.

--Universiteit van Amsterdam
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Title Annotation:Eire/Land
Author:Leerssen, Joep
Publication:Irish Literary Supplement
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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