“The Pursuit of Painting”

The Irish Museum of Modern Art’s working title for this unashamedly heterodox survey of twentieth-century European painting was “A Case for Painting.” This was replaced at a relatively advanced stage with the less-defensive moniker “The Pursuit of Painting.” While the earlier title aptly reflected IMMA’s customarily skeptical approach toward aesthetic tradition, the later one echoed the more celebratory attitude of the show’s guest curator, the painter Stephen McKenna. The museum’s programming has regularly called attention to the fractured, and indeed fractious nature of twentieth-century art practice, but this particular exhibition highlighted its continuities and camaraderie. In his catalogue introduction McKenna denied he had any particular ax to grind. Instead, he disarmingly offered “barefaced personal preference” as the principal means of selection. A consistent strategy throughout, however, was the downplaying of the tradition of the new in order to emphasize the persistence of certain “classical values of painting.” These values continue to inform McKenna’s own painting, which achieved a particular prominence in Europe during the ’80s—however misleadingly or reductively—as part of the neoclassical wing of pictorial postmodernism.

The show’s core of ten modern masters thus excluded Cubism’s founding fathers, Picasso and Braque, in favor of Juan Gris. Mondrian was absent, but two of Kasimir Malevich’s Suprematist canvases were juxtaposed with a late Malevich self-portrait—one of the show’s most arresting images. A similar balancing act was evident in the placement of a prewar abstract canvas by Jean Hélion alongside one of his figurative works from the late ’50s. In general, works from artists’ mature years were favored over those produced during the rebellious fervor of youth: Andre Derain’s portrait of his niece was painted in 1931; Fernand Léger’s Two Women Holding Flowers, 1954, the year before his death; and the sole Francis Picabia was a crepuscular kitsch painting from 1942. Independence of spirit and a readiness to ignore ideological fashion evidently provided Pierre Bonnard, Giorgio Morandi, Gwen John, and Jack B. Yeats with the necessary credentials for inclusion. A key binding agent for the exhibition as a whole was a trio of three carefully chosen works by Giorgio de Chirico, a crucial influence on its impresario, from 1916, the late ’30s and 1971.

Given McKenna’s modest exclusion of his own work from the exhibition, the other unifying element could be inferred rather than observed. This was not quite Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark; yet the clearest links between many of the works selected—especially those by the nineteen artists from the postwar period—could be traced through their various affinities, both painterly and personal, with the work of the painter-curator himself. The painterly affinities were teased out through a generous hang in IMMA’s generally intimate spaces. In some instances the juxtaposition of works illustrated complementary approaches to a formal problem, in others a simple congruence of palette. In many cases the ghostly echo of a McKenna landscape, interior, or figurative tableau clinched the connection. The postwar selection was dominated by work from northern Europe, and in deference to the exhibition’s location Ireland was well represented by three of the youngest painters included, Felim Egan, Ciarán Lennon, and Richard Gorman, as well as by Yeats and the Dublin-born Seán Scully. “The Pursuit of Painting” thus offered an intriguing and idiosyncratic alternative to the Modernist account of twentieth-century painting, viewed from a distinctly northwest European perspective.

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith