New academic year, New Perspectives

Elena McCrory walks us through the National Gallery of Ireland’s New Perspectives, Acquisitions 2011-2020 exhibition

New Perspectives, Acquisitions 2011-2020 made me nostalgic. Walking through the corridors of our beloved National Gallery (NGI) after its long enclosure gave me a sense of reunification. These new acquisitions were displayed, some for the very first time, from May 11-August 2. Like many other generous donations to the Gallery, they serve only to strengthen the diversity of its permanent collection. Curated over four rooms by Janet McLean, Niamh McNally, and museum director Sean Rainbird, the exhibit focuses on highlights from acquisitions over the past decade.

What first catches my eye is a monogram by Ludwig Meidner. Bettler (1916), purchased in 2020, is one of twelve pen and ink drawings from the artist’s book In Nacken das Sternenmeer (In the Nape of the Sea of Stars). The work is a reflection on Meidner’s own poverty-stricken life and brings to mind the power of expressionist book illustrations. The defiant black lines embellish his hard reality and the fine ink work captures his anguish. In the same room is Paul Henry’s Kate Anne Berry (1907), Louis le Brocquy’s Mother and Child (1950), and Margaret Clarke’s Miserae (1926), which she painted after being the second woman elected into the Royal Hibernian Academy, the first being Sarah Purser. Religious imagery surfaces in Günter Schöllkopf’s Stations of the Cross. Lastly, A Village Kermesse near Antwerp (1640s) is a joyful scene on copper by David Tenier II, one of the most significant Flemish painters of his time.

Figures in a Boat by John Lavery reminisces on the artist’s  early life and opens up the second room nicely. Completed in 1883 as he moved to Scotland to attend Glasgow’s Haldane Academy, the etching on paper — a rarity in Lavery’s oeuvre — depicts two figures on a boat. The work is accompanied by a letter that states it is Lavery’s only print. The wistfulness of movement makes this etching all the more mesmerising. Beside it hangs pieces by Frederick William Burton, Neville Johnson, and James Forrester, as well as Evelyn Hofer’s Mulligan’s James Joyce’s Pub, Dublin, 1966 (1996). A stunning manipulation of shadow, the work depicts a cat sitting beside a pint puller, telepathically demanding to be left alone.

“A beautiful portrayal of grief, O’Malley paints with oil on board a symbolic picture after the death of his friend Peter Lanyon (1918-64), mirroring the loneliness felt by many this year.”

I hone in on a Blackshaw as I walk through rooms three and four. Landscape with Trees (1951) was drawn by Basil Blackshaw at only 18, and is now being exhibited for the first time. Black daggers feature in the foreground, while the near distance reveals buildings hidden in this hypnotic landscape. Micheal Farrell’s Miss O’Murphy d’apres Boucher (1978) grabs me, as he depicts the third real Irish political picture. I look at Tony O’Malley’s In Memory of Peter Lanyon-Newmill Quarry in Winter with Windhover (1964) in awe. O’Malley paints with oil on board a beautiful portrayal of grief — a symbolic picture following the death of his friend Peter Lanyon (1918-64), mirroring the loneliness felt by many this year. Almost completely void of perspective and depth, O’Malley paints a central dark pit and a hawk hovering over a quarry close to Trevaylor in Cornwall. The hole against snowy surroundings emanates the fragility of life, whilst the hawk in motion exemplifies a daring creativity and freedom.

The final room is a showstopper. Here, modern Irish themes meld together: animals, nature, hope, and the contemporary. Aoife Layton’s Clash (2018) makes me miss the Trinity seagulls. I passed Anne Yeats’ Crayfish (20th century), William McKeown’s Hope painting -Drummond Place (2007), and Siobhán Hapaska’s snake, apple, tree (2018). The star for me, however, is hidden in the back corner. It glows from its murky background: Dorothy Cross’s Ghostship (i) (2011). In the work, a luminous green ship floats on Dún Laoghaire harbour. Its silent presence charms you. The canvas is filled with nostalgia and tradition, for by the 1970s most lightships had been retired along with their ship crew. The remembrance is eerie.

“A fitting title to compliment the display, New Perspectives opens up discussions surrounding the astounding stories behind each piece and allows the viewer a wider scope to explore new beginnings.”

The exhibition, presenting a variety of mediums, subjects, and provenances, showcases only a selected few of the nearly 2,000 pieces acquired over the past 10 years. Surely we will see many more future acquisitions at the NGI, shaped by the beautiful choices that entertain history beside the contemporary. Following the announcement by Catherine Martin, Minister for Arts, that €500,000 will be placed in capital funding for the 2020 acquisition programme, it is not surprising that in his Irish Times response, Sean Rainbird cites the national collection as belonging “to the people of Ireland”. Biasly, I chose my favourites from this exhibit, but a challenge it was. A fitting title to compliment the display, New Perspectives opens up discussions surrounding the astounding stories behind each piece and allows the viewer a wider scope to explore new beginnings.