An allegory is defined as a story, poem or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one. Keating’s Allegories of Change at the National Gallery’s Milltown Wing (Room 15) is a fitting display of the most emblematic Irish paintings of the 20th century. Marking the conclusion of the Decade of Centenaries, which encompasses the period of 1912 to 1922, this display of nine pieces by Irish artists Seán Keating (1889-1977) and one by William Orpen (1878-1931) vividly isolates us into our country’s past. Running until 27 November 2022 with free admission, Allegories of Change centres around An Allegory (1924), a painting that famously commented on the nature of the Irish Civil War. Supported by the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media under the Decade of Centenaries Programme 2012-2023, its importance cannot be overstated. Keating’s Men of the West (1915), War of Independence (1921) and Homo Sapiens: An Allegory of Democracy (1929-1930), to name but a few, are also showcased.
A piece regarded by many as the focal point of Keating’s career having established the artist as one of Ireland’s most significant painters, An Allegory was received by the National Gallery as a gift by Sir Alec Martin in 1952. Its incredible symbolism and realism echoes cries of political upheaval and tension. The work was first exhibited in the Royal Hibernian Academy’s annual show in 1925. Although it is naturalistic and extremely beautiful, the disconnection between the six adult figures featured is powerful when viewed in person.
“The painting was inspired by the events of the Civil War in 1922-23, which ended with Ireland’s signing of the Treaty for independence against Great Britain.”
Viewing the piece in 1925 in Dublin would have been a very different experience to seeing it today. The painting was inspired by the events of the Civil War in 1922-23, which ended with Ireland’s signing of the Treaty for independence from Great Britain. Despite the hopeful symbol of the mother and child that Keating places in front of a tree, the years to come would include the forming of an anti-Treaty group, and civil war would again violently prevail. This strengthening divide is represented in the painting by the two men on the right-hand-side of the piece. Keating’s incredible way of portraying motion is captured as both men dig a grave. One wears the military uniform of the former Irish Free State, while the other is in more casual attire and sports garb of the Irregular Army. Two men from the same country dig towards each other. The grave is covered in our national Irish flag.
Everything from An Allegory’s figures, setting and motion to its landscape is drenched in meaning. Even the oak tree that stands behind the mother and child, a pairing that could also symbolise Mother Ireland, is denotative in an Irish sense. Keating included a red oak to connect the tree to ancient Irish mythology and legend. The roots symbolise the long entangled web Ireland found itself in at the time. Physically, these roots are extremely difficult to dig up, adding further connections to the work’s allegorical messages.
“His utter rejection and perhaps unwillingness to accept what had been witnessed during the war is portrayed grimly.”
Keating paints himself in the piece as well. He was 35 at the time and is shown as the figure slumped against the oak tree. His expression is grim and he glowers at me from inside the frame. Previously unheard of in the realm of art history, especially in conservative Ireland, was the concept of painting for the purpose of sending a personal message. Still highly allegorical, the painting was one that depicts a fed-up and deeply affected Keating. His utter rejection and perhaps unwillingness to accept what had been witnessed during the war is portrayed grimly.
The closely connected Men of the West, painted prior to An Allegory, conveyed the terrible outcome of the 1916 Easter rising, which took place in the year of its making. Keating shows men at arms, preparing to fight in the uprising, set against a background of the Aran Islands. A beautifully bright, romanticised depiction of the event, this piece is better viewed in person. Keating paints the men as a vision for the Irish people to aspire to, a new type of man who will fight for the right to independence.
“Curated by Dr Brendan Rooney, Keating’s Allegories of Change unites two important artists, both desperately trying to make sense of the most transformative time in Irish history.”
Keating’s work shown alongside Stillorgan-born William Orpen’s The Holy Well (Nude Pattern – The Holy Well) makes for an interpretive and extremely engaging exhibition. The Holy Well was painted while Orpen was an official war artist in 1916. Perhaps, in creating this work, he drew closely the horrors he witnessed at this time. Curated by Dr Brendan Rooney, Keating’s Allegories of Change unites two important artists, both desperately trying to make sense of the most transformative time in Irish history.