“The disposal of one of the most vital Irish collections of the modern age”.

Doireann de Courcy Mac Donnell profiles the five art pieces being sold by RTÉ, and discusses the impact of their loss.

On November 19th, Raidió Teilifís Éireann will be putting five of its most prized works of art up for auction. Many of the pieces were jointly commissioned by RTÉ and the Arts Council, dating from 1966 until 2000 and depict a rich variety of Irish culture, and particularly Irish modern art. The five works, created by four different artists, are being sold in an effort to raise money for the broadcaster.

The Táin – Louis le Brocquy

The Táin is collaborative piece between le Brocquy and poet Thomas Kinsella. It is part of a collection of tapestries which depict the epic battle between Queen Medb of Connacht and Cúchulainn, who defended Ulster. This particular piece was commissioned in 1966 by Dublin architecture firm, Scott Tallon Walker. It is described as a ‘looped wool pile’ The poem by Thomas Kinsella is a translation of the ancient Irish epic “Táin Bó Cúlaigne”, ‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’ and tells heroic war tale of the fight for the Brown bull of Cooley – a story told to school children throughout the country. The Táin is notable for its beautifully dynamic and shimmering surface, due to the intricate weaving technique used. It depicts a figurative iteration of the face of Cúchulainn, the young war hero, against a deep red background. A further collection of twenty tapestries exist illustrating the poem and can be seen in the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA).

Abstract Painting – William Scott

Created by Scott in 1967, Abstract Painting is a rich mural measuring 1.68m by 3.81. Heavily influenced by Paul Klee and Georges Bracque, Scott paints rich colours in abstract shapes. Born in Greenock, UK in 1913, Scott moved to Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh aged eleven. Abstract Painting, an oil on canvas painting, is expected to go under the hammer for between £150,000 and £250,000. It is beautifully warm, with burgundy, orange and fuchsia tones dressing the canvas. In conversation with Dr Roisin Kennedy of the School of Art History and Cultural Policy in UCD, she commented; “I think this is a very important work… I can understand that maybe they couldn’t look after it properly or something like that. It was on display in a corridor. It was in adequate condition but it wasn’t in super condition. I think if they had problems with looking after it, they could have lent it or given it on… long term loan to the National Gallery or IMMA.”

Inscape Mozaga – Tony’ O Malley

Estimated to be auctioned for between £15,000 and £25,000, O’Malley created Inscape Mozaga in 1995. Measuring 01.92m x 1.22m, the canvas is painted with deep navy and contrasted with bright yellow. O’Malley, who turned to painting as a result of debilitating tuberculosis, insisted he was not an abstract painter but rather; “non-objective”. A star of modern art world in Ireland, O’Malley’s self-taught painting style described the landscapes of the country. When compared with the paintings he made while in the Bahamas and the Canary Islands, it is clear that this story palette of colours describes how O’Malley saw his native land.

Symphony Orchestra – George Campbell

Through the national airwaves, it appears that it is the loss of Campbell’s Symphony Orchestra that is being mourned the loudest. A breath-taking depiction of the National Symphony Orchestra, the quasi-cubist style and muted palette create a feast for the eyes. Purchased by RTÉ in 1969, Campbell’s oil painting measures 0.76m x 1.38m. “I start out by picking everything out with one finger on a piano, build it up gradually” Campbell is quoted to have said;  “and hope that finally I’ll have an orchestra going.” The painting is estimated to be sold for between £20,000 and £30,000.

The Massing of the Armies – Louis le Brocquy

Another work illustrating Kinsella’s Táin is The Massing of the Armies. This enormous tapestry measures 4.45m by 6.83m and is the largest piece put up for sale. The Massing of the Armies is depicted using a monochromatic, stark palette. The enormous canvas is covered with dark horse and men motifs, darting and warring upon on a white background. The tapestry was jointly commissioned by RTÉ and the Arts Council in 2000. When a collection of Táin tapestries were put up for sale in 2012, the year le Brocquy died, they yielded only a quarter of a million. However it has been reported that Sotheby’s are ‘confident’ the value of the works have since risen.

In light of the recent media leak, and the response by Dee Forbes, RTÉ Director General, it is evident that selling these pieces of art will do little to save a nearly-bankrupt RTÉ. Therefore it is fitting to ask, apart from the initial financial injection, whether selling these works will do any good? “I think that it shows that RTÉ professes itself to be interested in cultural affairs and yet it has shown an ignorance of its own collection and its own history. I know they are going through very difficult times and they have got to reinvent themselves but they should at least value that history and their relationship to the rest of the country,” said Dr. Kennedy.

The question also arises as to whether it is appropriate for RTÉ to sell these works, since they are partially paid for by the state, and thus the taxpayer? Is it right for these public pieces to be bought by private collectors? When asked about the value of these works of art to the state, Professor Kathleen James-Chakraborty of the UCD School of Art History and Cultural Policy, responded; “I myself have no idea of the monetary worth of these objects but many have huge cultural value to the State. Moreover, some were commissioned for specific places in very important RTÉ buildings, whose artistic integrity is damaged when they are removed. If they are not going to stay in Montrose, they should certainly be offered, as appropriate, to IMMA, the National Gallery and the National Museum, at no cost, and after that to the infrastructure of county museums in other communities across the country.”

Many of the works were jointly commissioned by RTÉ and the Arts Council. “The works do not belong to RTÉ” Dr Kennedy stated; “They belong to the state really and they were half paid for by the Arts Council. The Arts Council is going to get half the money from the sale but the Arts Council was not informed in advance of the sale”. In a letter to Dr Kennedy the Arts Council confirmed that “RTÉ did not consult with the Arts Council in advance of placing the art works for sale with Sotheby’s.” Furthermore they state that “their preference is that the works should remain in public ownership.''

What has further aggrieved onlookers is the announcement that the art will go under the hammer at Sotheby’s – an English auction house. The auction will take place in London, with many Irish interests citing that is now likely the works will leave the country. “It is probably illegal that they are being sold by Sotheby’s off the island, rather than having the sale tendered in a way that Irish auction houses could compete for it” Professor James-Chakraborty continues;  “This could happen in part because, as we already saw in the case of the Beit collection, Ireland has some of the weakest laws in Europe governing the export of cultural heritage. These need to be changed. Losing the works entails, losing an important part of our modernist heritage and doing so when the Irish state or Irish society, as opposed to RTÉ, is not facing economic difficulties. Ireland as a state invests far too little in the visual arts and at an institutional level appreciates them far too little. I would suggest that this is because they are more feminized than Irish literature, Irish theatre, or Irish popular or folk music.”

In her column in the Irish Independent, Eleanor Flegg described it as “the disposal of one of the most vital Irish collections of the modern age”. Dr Kennedy stated “They’re very much part of the history of the state, the works, and they belong to a very distinctive moment… [RTÉ] are the custodians of that history and it is not something for them to put onto the market”. Professor James-Chakraborty concurs;  “There are very few countries that in the twenty-first century would consciously sell off cultural heritage commissioned for a quasi state body in this way.  It is utterly deplorable, and also ineffectual, as it will not make a major change in the financial situation of RTÉ. Irish real estate is worth a lot more than Irish art.”