Ava Gallery Celebrates Irish Modernism

Watch video featuring some of the stand-out pieces

Irish Art and Modernism by SB Kennedy was written 20 years ago as a reference book for a Dublin exhibition of the same name. To celebrate the book’s anniversary, the Ava Gallery have put together a tribute exhibition consisting of 48 works from private and public collections.

‘What’s interesting about the exhibition is that there are some pictures that have been seen in public before, either in works from National Gallery and the Irish Art & Modernism Exhibition.,’ explains curator David Britton. ‘But there are others that have never been on public view.’

Focusing on the period between 1920 and 1950, the exhibition consists of iconic pieces from some of Ireland's best artists. Hung by rough chronology (begin the tour in the back room and work down) the paintings chronicle the development of Irish modernism from Orpen to the White Stag Group.

Start with Orpen, represented here by a commissioned picture of 21-year old Dolly Stiles. The young woman – a family friend of the artist and his golf instructor – looks serenely out of the canvas. Her hat has a blue band, but the matching posy of flowers she clutched originally have been replaced by a bag of golf clubs hiked over her shoulder.

Orpen’s female students were to prove equally strong-willed, with many of them dipping their toe into the modernist waters while their male counterparts stuck rigidly to Orpen’s teachings.

Britton points out the differences between Estella Solomon and Beatrice Glenavy and Orpen’s other pupils. ‘These are very modern works, really, compared to his other pupils. The most well-known of his pupils would be Sean Keating who always maintained this very academic method of painting.’

With paintings by Charles Lamb, Frank McKelvey and William Conor hung in this room – including a version of 'The Jaunting Car' that may be better than the one exhibited in the Ulster Museum – it is difficult to identify the best piece.

The most eye-catching, however, is almost certainly the stained-glass panel by Harry Clarke. 'Bluebeard’s Last Wife is a Perraults' inspired scene in antique blues and reds. Back-lit from inside the cabinet used to display it, the panel is exotically and strikingly beautiful. Britton notes Poland will soon be releasing a stamp based on the piece to represent Ireland.

However, even Clarke’s whimsical 'Wife' has to cede the centre of attention to Mainie Jellett’s astonishing oil, 'Homage to Fra Angelico'. The 183x152.5 cm canvas dominates the back wall of the main room, with its aged gold patina and delicate, geometrically precise, lines.

Jellett was a hugely influential figure in Irish art during her lifetime, and for many 'Homage to Fra Angelico' is the painting that established her reputation. Previously Jellett’s work – along, Britton adds, with that of her friend and fellow artist, Evie Sydney Hone – had been held up for mockery by the press and critics of her day.

Sharing space with Jellett and Hone are many of the ‘expected’ names in Irish art: Gerrard Dillon, Nano Reid, FE McWilliam and John Luke. Included in the ranks of those luminaries, however, are pieces by artists seen less frequently, such as Lillian Davidson and Thurloe Connolly. They give the exhibition a freshness and lightness that such academically rigorous collections can sometimes lack.

A personal favorite is the bright and cheerful 'On Howth Head' by Harry Kernoff, with its collection of busy, going-about-their-lives characters. It evokes narrative, demanding that you fill in the blanks about what the tiny people are up to.

A Celebration of Irish Art and Modernism is on at the Ava Gallery from June 16-September 3. There will be Gallery Talks on June 15 with Dr SB Kennedy and August 30 with Dr Roisin Kennedy.