Art Makes Us Feel

Doireann de Courcy Mac Donnell talks to figures in the Irish art world about pieces that have remained with them.

I studied architecture. As part of that, you’re brought into a world where you can just go to a gallery or a museum and enjoy the experience. You don’t need to know anything, what’s good or bad, or from what period, you just need to be. It is almost an other-worldly experience, to be moved by a piece of art - something that is essentially stagnant, or flat- it has almost a single dimension to it. 

To begin, I first had to understand why visual art makes us feel. “I suppose what visual art allows us to do as readers, I think, is to react emotionally or intellectually, or even in a sensory way just through our response through our eyes, or our other senses in some cases. It’s an ‘other space’, and that allows emotion to be” Stephen Taylor told me. Taylor is the Development Officer at The Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin.

“I always think when I see people in the gallery where I work, in IMMA, or in any gallery in the world, they are particular spaces that allow a very unique experience [...] We really notice it around Christmas. In normal times when the Christmas rush is on you see people escaping from high-street shopping to deliberately explore a gallery and let things that are unique to art [carry] emotion. Why it happens, I suppose, it’s just the magic of art. 

“Some art works can just really impact on people for various reasons, whether it’s the concept behind them or the way they’re made, or in a sensory sense, how they appear.[...] You turn a corner in a gallery and you’re awestruck sometimes by the beauty of something. And then there’s, obviously, the other types of work [...] And that [is] a different emotion, [an] emotion of empathy and tragedy”. 

Taylor answered my question succinctly and poetically, but left me with an even more intangible one - why is art important? “I just think it’s a form that allows the maker and the reader to explore these concepts and emotions and ideas in this unique way. Art fills the gap where words can’t go sometimes” he told me. 

“It has a universal appeal, it can cross languages, all different levels, all ages you see engaging with art works and they can have an impact. I think of the work of Sean Scully. Seán Scully paints what we would describe as abstract - large-scale, abstract, colour-field paintings [...] They don’t look like anything you can recognise. But when you look at its title, it might be about the death of his son [...] Similarly you think of Mark Rothko in terms of history. You hear of people standing in front of the Rothko paintings and they’re moved to tears”. 

“I suppose there’s a magic there, and it doesn’t always work, but when they do work, they hit you. And that’s why so many people are drawn to art” Taylor concludes. 

It has only happened to me a handful of times where I have been struck dead by a painting, stopped in my tracks. I remember I was walking through the home of Peggy Guggenheim which held her personal collection in Venice when I saw a particular painting by Salvador Dalí. The painting was by no means pride-of-place, it was on a corridor with a window casting oblique light across it, and I had just happened across it. Only a glance and I was repulsed. I felt physically ill - it was dark and horrifying, and I escaped to the courtyard as quick as I could. With the fresh air, sense returned, and I was left absolutely perplexed at my intense reaction. The painting from 1931 is ‘Untitled’, and still, I cannot look at it - even now through a screen.

You can’t expect what piece will stay with you, or cause you to pause, or to feel. I suppose a ‘grander’ point behind this article is, through talking to some of Ireland’s art-world voices, is to understand there is no ‘right’ way to like art or to feel about it. Each experience is unique and valid, and everyone’s opinion is different - formed by life and experience. I asked Taylor about a piece that had stayed with him. He described IMMA when it had moved to The National Concert Hall (which was at one stage UCD, Earlsfort Terrace) in 2012 as the Royal Hospital was undergoing renovation.

He told me the exhibition “‘Time out of Mind' was very apt because it was presented in one main corridor with cell-like rooms off left and right. There was one room and it had a Dorothy Cross work in it. I remember walking in, I was working there, and it was called Parachute [...] You would describe it as an installation piece. It consists of two objects. One is a gannet - a young gannet that had broken its neck while diving into the shallow water near where she lived. She would find these young gannets that had sadly died. She would get them preserved through taxidermy - and in this immaculate presentation, the gannet was presented suspended from a parachute. The beak was nearly touching the floor, and the parachute to nearly sixty percent of the ceiling of the room. And you would walk in, and you just couldn't help be affected. 

“And then it draws you in, and you begin to wonder why you’re affected. And then the emotion starts to come in, and you start to admire - well I did anyway - you start to pick up on the delicacy of the natural object, of the gannet, the blush of yellow on the side of the face, of the beak, of the head of the creature - the perfection of it. And this kind of man-made object [the parachute above], which was a complimentary colour, a pale sky blue. And you start to think, what’s it about? Is it about the loss of this creature? And then you start to think, well is it about hope as well? Maybe something [like] you think of what humankind has done to this planet and maybe we could be parachuting or saving it. You think of sea pollution... all these emotions resonate, and stay in your brain. It’s always stayed with me”.

Niamh MacNally is the Curator of the Prints and Drawings Room at the National Gallery of Ireland. She described a particular oil painting by Margaret Clarke (1884–1961) which stayed with her. Speaking to The University Observer, MacNally explained that; “This painting depicts the artist’s eldest child Ann (1917–1985), and is one of a number of works in the National Gallery of Ireland’s collection relating to her children. Through the Gallery’s 2017 exhibition Margaret Clarke – An Independent Spirit, a number of works by the artist in private hands came to light, including this one. Hitherto unrecorded, it had belonged to the same family for years. It was gifted by Mr Leo Donnelly in memory of his wife and mother-in-law, who had derived great pleasure from viewing the art on display during her regular visits to the Gallery”.

Art can strike the observer for many reasons and in many ways. For MacNally, it was the sentiment behind the beautiful painting that stayed with her. “Works are acquired into the Gallery’s collection through gift, bequest, purchase or commission. This painting held much sentimental value for the donor. He presented it to the Gallery in the knowledge that it would be properly cared for so that future generations would be able to enjoy it. This small-scale work takes its place among the great artworks of the collection, many of which had brought his mother-in-law such joy. Art has a way of connecting with our past and conjuring up memories and emotions, and this gift represents such a connection.

“The works that will be on display in our upcoming exhibition New Perspectives – Acquisitions 2011-2020 range in date and across different media. All the works that will be on view have their own individual stories about how they came to form part of the National Collection. These stories offer us additional insights and can thus enrich our experience of the artworks themselves”.

Also working at the National Gallery of Ireland, Sean Rainbird is the Director. It was a photograph titled Sleeping Pilgrim, Levo?a, Slovakia,1968 (which will also feature in “New Perspectives. Acquisitions 2011-2020”) that for him sprung to mind when I asked him to talk about a piece that made him ‘feel’;

“In early March last year, days before the first lockdown, I climbed a narrow staircase in west London and knocked on Markéta Luska?ová’s door. From Dublin we had begun a conversation about her Irish trip in 1972 to photograph the pilgrims climbing Croagh Patrick. Quiet and rich in memories, she was good company. She told a lovely story about going to Ireland by night ferry because, as a Czech citizen without a visa, she had been told that [the] ferry might be less rigorously supervised. Of course, she was asked to show her passport, but the official waved her through visa-less, when he heard where she was going.

“Our curatorial specialist on photography selected a group of works from that trip in 1972. But the artist also showed me earlier photographs of pilgrims travelling through eastern Slovakia. Some were very grainy, because taken with the only film she could obtain: sympathetic photo technicians surreptitiously gave her off-cuts from the unused ends of film strips sent in for development. One was this peaceful image of an exhausted man sleeping at the side of a track on a bed of moss. He is in a world of his own, and is now part of ours. It, and a couple more of her Slovakian works complements the Irish subjects she photographed a couple of years later, now all acquired for our collection”. 

Kathleen James-Chakraborty is Professor of Art History and Architectural Historian at University College Dublin. I first encountered James-Chakraborty when I elected her module Dublin: Its Museums and Collections. The lectures took place in Newman - a world away from the comfort of the Richview Quad - but they brought you to places far and wide. As she told me herself, the question I asked was “one that is intensely personal, much in the same way that hearing snatches of music, one associates with other times and places”. I suppose for something to resonate with you so deeply, it has to have a profound impact and connection.

“I have lots of works I love for different reasons, but certainly the library of my secondary school has stuck with me, although I haven’t been back since the early 1980s” she explained. To James-Chakraborty, it was clear that a building is equally as valid in the art world as a watercolour; “an interesting question is how modern buildings with little ornament are nonetheless able sometimes to have qualities of light and space that many experience in this way. Of course, I also have favourite paintings, too, including Rothkos, Titians, and Turners, as well as late Rembrandts. I like paint!”

The conversation I had with Stephen Taylor from IMMA was meandering, interesting and thought-provoking. Although space on this page limited how much I could include, I couldn’t let the rest just sit in the ether. The interview has been published in full on The University Observer website, titled - OTwo Interviews: Stephen Taylor.