Art | Constructing Modern Ireland


Featuring works from some of Irish art’s finest practitioners, the Hugh Lane centenary exhibition should not be missed, writes Lisa Lavelle.

The Hugh Lane Dublin City Art Gallery opened its doors in 1908. Its opening was surrounded by publicity and controversy. Eventually, due to disagreements over the site of the gallery, Hugh Lane moved his collection to the Tate Gallery in London. After Lane’s death, there was a prolonged legal battle between the two galleries and since then, his original collection has been split between the two.

However, this year, a special centenary exhibition has been taking place all summer. To honour the 100 year anniversary of the gallery, all 39 paintings are together in the Hugh Lane for the first time since 1913.

Although the opening of the gallery was beset with difficulties, it is now a significant part of modern Irish culture. It is an important foray into modern art, established and run by the Irish. Nonetheless, the Hugh Lane centenary casts the limelight, not only on Irish artists, but on international painters also.

It was one of the first modern art galleries in Europe. Hugh Lane was attempting to bring modern art to the Irish public through his own impressive array of European paintings, as was a concurrent theme with the Anglo-Irish aristocrats of that era. His collection contained paintings by some of the most important artists of the day, including Monet, Manet, Renoir and Degas.

One of the original paintings from his exhibition, Manet’s ‘Portrait of Eva Gonzalez,’ can be seen now in the centenary exhibition. Paintings like this were the embodiment of modern art of the time. It is impressionistic in style and the contrast between Gonzalez’s white dress and dark features shows influences of modern Spanish painting.

Indeed, the influence of modern international style, including Japanese and Spanish, was a cornerstone of modern art. French impressionists and European post-impressionists such as Degas and Van Gogh incorporated these influences into their own styles. Modern art admitted influences other than the old masters. Hugh Lane brought this new stylistic freedom to Ireland through his gallery.

Furthermore, one of Lane’s most important achievements was his recognition of modern Irish art. It’s often said that modernism never came to Ireland, but the Hugh Lane gallery turns this claim on its head. There  ere Irish impressionists and Hugh Lane was one of the first to recognise them.

When the gallery opened, it contained paintings by Irish artists like Sarah Purser, Walter Osborne and John Lavery, as well as Roderic O’ Connor, who had already achieved some recognition internationally.

Moreover, Lane helped to bring modern Irish artists out of the woodwork and even more importantly, he tried to end what he saw as Ireland’s cultural isolation by establishing a link between Irish art and continental art. The Irish paintings in the Hugh Lane are still exhibited next to the international collection.

The centenary exhibition in the Hugh Lane marks the anniversary of a landmark in European culture: the establishment of a gallery of Modern European Art, although for the Irish, it represents something more. It
represents the beginning of a new landscape of Irish art and culture. It marks the beginning of an appreciation of modern international art in Ireland, as well as an appreciation of our own home grown talent.

The exhibition runs until September 28th. Admission is free.