PRINT September 1991


The Irish Museum of Modern Art

I do certainly think that Jackson Pollock is very much in a Celtic mode...his real name was something Irish like McKay.
—Dorothy Walker

[Pollock’s paintings are] “world historical” in the Hegelian sense.
—William Rubin

IN HIS WAYWARD NOVEL At Swim-Two-Birds, the Irish writer Flann O’Brien introduces a character with an unusual distinction: he was born at the age of 25 and thus “entered the world with a memory but without a personal experience to account for it.”1 The new Irish Museum of Modern Art, in Kilmainham, Dublin, which opened in May, would seem to be in a similar position, laying claim to the project of modernity but lacking the experience of an indigenous Modernist movement in the visual arts to account for it. Yet so far from being an aberration, it could be argued that this is the ultimate affirmation of the global logic of Modernism, which never set much store on memory anyway, much less on the lived history of peripheral or subaltern cultures. The question then arises: why a Museum of Modern Art at this point in Irish culture? What possibilities does it present for the retrieval of memory within Modernism?

Given the Modernist insistence on a radical break with the past, there is a certain irony in the fact that the building chosen for the new museum is Kilmainham’s 17th-century Royal Hospital, the first great expression of architectural classicism in Ireland, and a monument to the colonial occupation of the country by the British. The hospital was designed in the 1680s as a retirement home for ex-servicemen. With its imposing presence and strategic location, it eventually became the headquarters of the commander-in-chief of the British army, and as late as 1916 it housed 2,500 troops brought in to suppress the anti-British insurrection known as the Easter Rising. Left more or less in disrepair after its evacuation in 1927, the building was restored in the 1980s at a cost of over $30 million, using a combination of government and European Community funds.

Fredric Jameson’s contention that “the traces of imperialism detected in Western modernism” would seem, therefore, to be articulated spatially in the Irish Museum of Modern Art’s very building. Yet Jameson went on to remark of another Irish monument, Ulysses, that its “Third World modernism slyly turned the imperial relationship inside out,”2 skewering imperial space with the historical contingency the empire sought to obliterate. And for the museum’s Derry-born director, Declan McGonagle, it is precisely the historically charged structure of the building that is its greatest asset, providing a rare opportunity for an art institution on the periphery to challenge the dominant meanings and practices of the “museum” and of “modern” “art” in today’s international art world.

To Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, one of the main purposes of the museum as institution is to spatialize time, to arrest and realign the discontinuities of history on a manageable spatial axis.3 Hence the importance of neutral space, what Brian O’Doherty refers to as the “white cube,” which bleaches art objects of their extraterritorial associations. The compact rooms of the Royal Hospital are indeed cubelike white boxes, almost on a continuum in their seriality and formal symmetry with the Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd works in the opening exhibition, “Inheritance and Transformation.” But McGonagle exploits even this seriality for its temporal possibilities, as the “Inheritance and Transformation” theme negotiates a series of narratives from an initial Cubist moment (Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Robert Delaunay) through the spatializing designs of hard-edge and Conceptual artists, and finally into an array of installations and narrative works that contest not only the space of the cube-shaped rooms but the building itself. In one of the most effective pieces, by Magdalena Jetelová, a heap of fine sand in a corner of a room resembles the bottom half of a bisected hourglass, giving the impression that the remainder is outside. It is as if the walls of the room had been made porous by time.

The infiltration of space by time in an Irish cultural context signifies the return of history, or rather its refusal to go away despite the best efforts of the state to disavow “the memory of the dead.” The weeks before the opening of the museum were marked by an acrimonious debate over the Irish government’s reluctance to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Easter Rising (the leaders of which the British executed in Kilmainham jail, adjoining the museum). The corrosive power of popular memory is considered a threat to the legitimacy of a modern state intent on integration into the world economy. Since the outbreak of the conflict in the North, in 1968, Irish history has been subjected to a vigorous revision that sets out to remove the “backward look,” and the residues of a dissident nationalism, from Irish culture. The state, with its institutionalized spaces of the library, the gallery, and the museum, required a consolidation of high culture to offset the more amorphous, clandestine culture of the nation.

It was at this point that visual culture, and in particular Modernism, assumed a new importance in state and corporate sponsorship of the arts. Hans Georg Gadamar has suggested that not least of the attractions of Modernism was that by closing spatial distances between cultures, it opened up temporal distances, substituting the remote for the recent past.4 As if in direct acknowledgment of this, the first showpiece for the international style in Ireland, the ROSC (“The Poetry of Vision”) exhibition in 1967–68, presented works by leading international artists alongside 150 “masterpieces” of ancient Celtic art. Works by contemporary artists were omitted, but when, under the aegis of ROSC and the international art market, abstraction, hard-edge, and Minimalist styles entered the repertoire of emerging artists, they were invariably redeemed in the name of antiquity, as vestiges of Celtic art. According to the critic Dorothy Walker, one of the most influential advocates of the international style in Ireland, “There is an underlying structural basis in Irish art. . . [that] has persisted since prehistoric times, a paradoxically informal formalism which can be seen as far back as the great carvings at Newgrange.”5 It was as if some ineffable Celtic unconscious linked the 5,000-year-old Newgrange tumulus to the galleries of New York. Even Jackson Pollock was reclaimed as a son of the Gael, which no doubt explained the descent from culture to anarchy in his later work.

This tendency to absorb the shock of the new by earthing it in native soil might be seen as an excessive form of nationalism, but in fact it is the opposite. Walker’s assertion that Pollock was a Celt is not at all incompatible with William Rubin’s equally tendentious claim that he was world historical in the Hegelian sense.6 The latter, indeed, includes the former. If, in the controversial 1984 exhibition on “primitivism” at the New York Museum of Modern Art, Picasso’s universal genius could be said to reside in his “profound identity of spirit with the tribal peoples,”7 by the some token Pollock’s “world-historical” vision could be expected to include the lineaments of ancient Celtic art, and more besides. This is perhaps what Clement Greenberg had in mind when he assured a Dublin audience in 1980 that the New York art world was the only culture “of any kind since neolithic times that’s global, earth-wide or threatening to be so.” And, he added ominously, “As our Western culture spreads it may meet resistance but it meets no competition worth mentioning. . . every other tradition. . . but the Western was already dead or moribund before the emergence of industrialism and before Western imperialism ever reached it.”8

But if the primitive, suitably abstracted and dehistoricized, was enlisted to authenticate Modern art in the metropolitan center, this safe option was not available to the periphery, in an Irish culture still coming to its senses, in Seamus Deane’s words, after centuries of colonial concussion. As the Irish newspaper The Nation reported in 1844, “In other countries the past is the neutral ground of the scholar and the antiquary: with us it is a battlefield.”9 No sooner had the ROSC exhibition of 1967–68 sought to institutionalize a calcified, neolithic nationalism than conflict erupted in Northern Ireland, signifying a calamitous return of history. Dan Graham has argued that one of the most pressing tasks facing contemporary art is “a concern with historical memory,” a need “to resuscitate the just-past.”10 In Ireland, the just-past throws a long shadow. In 1865, one of the founders of The Nation, John Blake Dillon, stated that land tenure was vitally affected by “very recent. . . and very extensive confiscations” of land by the British. When had these taken place? “In the time of Cromwell,” Dillon replied, adding, without any sense of tautology, that “any act that has an important bearing upon the present condition of the country is sufficiently recent to justify me in describing it as very recent.”11 There is no trace of a mystical collective unconscious here: this resilient historical memory has been contested and reconstituted in almost every political upheaval since the 17th century, including the present conflict in the North.

While a corporate nation of Celticism, and the erasure of the past, may have appealed to the aspirant Modernists of the official state culture, this has not been McGonagle’s trajectory. As the director of the innovative Orchard Gallery in Derry, he actively resisted the metropolitan annexation of Irish culture under the guise of regionalism. The gallery mapped out a set of subaltern spaces, addressing Derry not just as a physical site but as a point of intersection for unresolved historical narratives. This thinking is also evident in the organization of the “Inheritance and Transformation” exhibition. The classical ideals enshrined in the architecture of the Royal Hospital are given short shrift in Willie Doherty’s inscribed photographs, which parody the postcolonial Irish state’s obsequious use of the imperial architecture of Georgian Dublin. In John Kindness’ Scraping the Surface, 1990, Clement Greenberg’s esthetics of the surface, and his valorization of New York as the Athens of Abstract Expressionism, are given their due homage in the image of a conscientious citizen (complete with watch and running shoes) who seems to have stepped off a Grecian urn to remove a dog turd from the pavement.

The more overtly political pieces return, however uneasily, to “the Troubles,” the Irish war of independence and the civil war that followed it. Stefan Balkenhol’s innocuous Man with Green Sweater and Black Trousers, 1984, acquires a political persona by its placement alongside Jack B. Yeats’ Lament (Funeral Procession of Harry Boland), 1940, as if to say there are no innocent bystanders in a civil war. (Boland, a leading republican, was assassinated in 1922, and as all cameras were confiscated at his funeral, Yeats’ several paintings of the event have an almost talismanic quality in Ireland as the only records of it.) In a similar vein, a bloodied hand in one of Nigel Rolfe’s photographs is given additional intensity by its association with James Coleman’s haunting video installation Strongbow, 1978, in which a clapping green (nationalist) and a red hand (the Red Hand of Ulster from Irish legend) break the repose of the Norman knight who instigated the English conquest of Ireland in 1170. In a sense, the effigy of the warrior, a cast from his tomb, itself testifies to the repetition or doubling of the past in Ireland, since the actual tomb lies in Christchurch Cathedral, a short distance from Kilmainham.

Part of the rationale for enlisting Modernism and the museum in the consolidations of the postcolonial state, no doubt, has been to sever Irish art from the attrition of history. Yet the site of the museum, and its insertion into the fractured culture of the only excolony in Europe, may undo this process, reactivating a past that, in its succession of shocks and dislocations, possesses the transformative power of the most radical forms of Modernism.

Luke Gibbons is Lecturer in Communications at Dublin City University. He is the coauthor of Cinema and Ireland, Syracuse University Press, 1988, and a contributing editor to The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, forthcoming from W. W. Norton, New York, and Faber, London.


1. Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971, p. 9.
2. Fredric Jameson, “Modernism and Imperialism,” in Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature, introduction by Seamus Deane, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1990, p. 64. (Originally published by Field Day Theatre Company, Derry, 1988.)
3. Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, “The Space of the Museum,” Continuum: An Australian Journal of the Media 3 no. 1, 1990, p. 63.
4. See David Roberts, “Beyond Progress: The Museum and Montage,” Theory, Culture & Society 5 nos. 2–3, 1988, p. 544.
5. Dorothy Walker, “Traditional Structures in Recent Irish Art,” The Crane Bag 6 no. 1, 1982, p. 41.
6. The quotations in the epigraph are taken from Jill Nunn and Dorothy Walker, “The Morning after the Night Before,” Circa no. 14, January/February 1984, p. 16; and Thomas McEvilley, “Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief: ‘”Primitivism“ in 20th Century Art’ at the Museum of Modern Art,” Artforum XXIII no. 3, November 1984, p. 60.
7. A wall label in the exhibition, quoted in James Clifford, “Histories of the Tribal & Modern,” in Russell Ferguson et al., eds., Discourses: Conversations in Postmodern Art and Culture, New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, and Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990, p. 409.
8. John T. Tarpin, ed., International Influence on Local Art Communities, Proceedings of the 14th Congress of the International Association of Art Critics, Dublin: AICA, Irish Section, 1983, p. 134.
9. The Voice of the Nation, Dublin: James Duffy, 1844, p. 156.
10. In Hal Foster, ed., Discussions in Contemporary Culture, vol. 1, Seattle: Bay Press/Dia Art Foundation, 1987, Pp. 88–91.
11. Cited in Patrick O’Farrell, England and Ireland since 1800, Oxford: at the University Press, 1975, p. 1.